Documents implicate Christie higher-ups

Bridget Anne Kelly, Gov. Christie's recently fired deputy chief of staff, with the governor in Seaside Heights, N.J., in September after a devastating boardwalk fire. She had exchanged e-mails earlier that day with Port Authority official David Wildstein about the Fort Lee traffic mess.
Bridget Anne Kelly, Gov. Christie's recently fired deputy chief of staff, with the governor in Seaside Heights, N.J., in September after a devastating boardwalk fire. She had exchanged e-mails earlier that day with Port Authority official David Wildstein about the Fort Lee traffic mess. (TIM LARSEN / New Jersey Governor's Office)
Posted: January 13, 2014

As the fallout swirled last week over revelations that Gov. Christie's aides and appointees created a series of massive traffic jams in an apparent act of political punishment, the question remained: How close did the scandal get to Christie?

The Republican governor, who fired a top aide and dismissed a close political adviser Thursday after previously denying any involvement by his staff, has maintained he was unaware of any wrongdoing until Wednesday - when e-mails were disclosed suggesting political motives for gridlock in the Bergen County borough of Fort Lee. Two access lanes to the George Washington Bridge were closed starting Sept. 9 without warning to local officials.

A much larger cache of documents released Friday indicates several members of the governor's inner circle - including press secretary Michael Drewniak and newly appointed chief of staff Regina Egea - were involved as early as September in communications about the traffic.

Drewniak and Egea were sent e-mails the week of the lane closures by David Wildstein and Bill Baroni, two Christie appointees to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who oversaw the lane closures.

Wildstein forwarded Drewniak an e-mail Sept. 12 - while the closures were underway - from a Bergen Record reporter seeking comment on the traffic jam-ups. Copied on the e-mail was Bridget Anne Kelly, the aide Christie fired, who had sent Wildstein an e-mail a month earlier: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."

Baroni sent Egea an e-mail Sept. 13 from Port Authority executive director Patrick Foye, an appointee of Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York. Foye announced that morning he was reversing the lane closures, which he blasted as "hasty" and "abusive," the documents show.

Christie's communications director, Maria Comella, meanwhile, is mentioned in an exchange between Wildstein and Baroni on Oct. 2 - the day the Wall Street Journal reported on Foye's e-mail denouncing the closures.

"Comella didn't think much of the story. Said nobody paying attention," Baroni wrote.

It isn't clear from the documents exactly what staff members knew about the closures. Drewniak did not respond to requests for comment Friday or Saturday. Egea and Comella did not respond to e-mails Saturday seeking comment.

The more than 2,000 pages of documents - the result of subpoenas legislative Democrats issued to seven Port Authority officials, including Wildstein and Baroni - contain scant mention of the governor by his aides or appointees.

In one text-message exchange, arrangements are mentioned for an apparent meeting between Christie and David Samson, chairman of the Board of Commissioners at the Port Authority. The exchange occurred Aug. 5, eight days before Kelly sent the e-mail calling for traffic problems in Fort Lee, where the Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, did not endorse Christie's reelection.

Though Sokolich is mentioned derisively in the documents, they do not indicate a reason he may have been targeted. Christie said last week he "wouldn't have been able to pick him out of a lineup." The documents do not indicate whether a meeting between Christie and Samson occurred.

Wildstein submitted the documents - more than 900 pages - that include the meeting reference.

"By submitting these documents, Mr. Wildstein is telling us they are related to the lane closures in some way," Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), who is leading the legislative investigation, said in a statement Friday. "The question that demands answering is how."

Wildstein's documents - some of which are redacted - also include an exchange with Kelly on Sept. 12, the fourth day of the closures.

Kelly, who forwarded Wildstein an e-mail with a message about Sokolich's anger over the gridlock and "a feeling in town that it is government retribution for something," told Wildstein she was "on my way to Seaside," where Christie was visiting after a fire ravaged businesses along the boardwalk.

Kelly appears in photographs next to Christie that day.

Wisniewski has said he intends to subpoena Kelly, among other members of Christie's staff. On Saturday, Assemblyman Vincent Prieto, who will become leader of the Assembly this week, announced plans to call a special session Thursday to extend subpoena power for the legislative investigation.

During a hearing before Wisniewski's committee Thursday, Wildstein repeatedly invoked his constitutional right to remain silent. His attorney, Alan Zegas, said that if Wildstein were provided with immunity, "I think that you'd find yourselves in a far different position with respect to the information he could provide." Wildstein and Baroni resigned last month after Baroni testified before lawmakers that the closures were part of a traffic study Wildstein ordered. Foye testified he was unaware of any study.

The documents indicate a traffic study was, in fact, conducted. Communications by other Port Authority employees, meanwhile, suggest they were unaware of a political motive; some questioned the purpose of closing the lanes.

As the Port Authority began to receive questions about the closures, efforts were made to control the information released, the documents show.

On Sept. 13, after the bridge's general manager, Robert Durando, sent Port Authority officials an e-mail at 8:04 a.m. announcing the closed lanes had been reopened, Foye responded at 8:28: "Thanks, Bob. I'll set up a meeting to discuss this issue . . . how do we get word out?" Baroni replied at 8:41: "Pat we need to discuss prior to any communications." After Foye wrote, "Bill we are going to fix this fiasco," Baroni wrote at 9:03 that he was on his way into the office.

"There can be no public discourse," Baroni's e-mail read.

On Sept. 17, Drewniak and Wildstein communicated - through personal e-mail accounts - about a statement it appears Drewniak planned to send a reporter.

"Pardon? It's an independent agency, and I'll refer you to the Port Authority," the e-mail read, along with the statement that traffic studies were "done all the time." The Port Authority's spokesman, Steve Coleman, repeatedly forwarded reporter requests to Baroni, Wildstein, and other Port Authority officials, with the message: "I will not respond unless instructed otherwise." Wildstein and Drewniak, meanwhile, continued to communicate about questions from reporters, expressing irritation.

On Nov. 6, after getting a request from a Wall Street Journal reporter, Drewniak forwarded it to Comella and another Christie spokesman, Colin Reed. "It's back," Drewniak wrote.

Through his personal e-mail, he sent the reporter request to Wildstein with a note: "Will talk to you within the next hour." Drewniak later sent a statement to Wildstein, who shared it with Baroni.

"For goodness sake, the Governor of the state of New Jersey does not involve himself in traffic surveys," it began.


mhanna@phillynews.com

609-989-8990 @maddiehanna

Inquirer staff writer Jan Hefler contributed to this article.

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