Emails among Christie appointees suggest political vendetta

Posted at 5:01 PM, Jan 08, 2014
and last updated 2014-01-08 17:01:20-05

(CNN) — Emails emerged on Wednesday purportedly from top aides to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie bolstering suggestions that George Washington Bridge lane closures last year that tied up traffic stemmed from a political vendetta and not bureaucratic incompetence as his administration claimed.

Christie said in a statement that “what I’ve seen today is unacceptable,” adding that he was “misled by a member of his staff” and knew nothing about what had transpired. He previously said he knew nothing about allegations of political retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee, where the traffic lanes feed into the nation’s busiest bridge across the Hudson River, for not endorsing him in his re-election bid.

Those cited in the series of e-mails and text messages subpoenaed by Democratic legislators and obtained by CNN and other news outlets did not respond to requests for comment or to verify the communications.

The politically charged controversy comes with Christie considered a likely candidate for President in 2016 and leading national polls for the Republican nomination.

The e-mails, if accurate, are the most damaging information to surface supporting Democratic suspicions of political retaliation in this case involving the Christie administration, which has put the blame on a mishandled traffic study.

The exchanges began three weeks before the closures in September, which caused heavy traffic backups, and cite a senior Christie staffer and political appointees at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, said in an e-mail to David Wildstein, then the highest-level appointee representing the state at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

“Got it,” Wildstein replied.

Democrats allege the lane closures between September 9-13 were to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie in his re-election effort.

Democratic New Jersey Assembly Deputy Speaker John Wisniewski said the e-mails call into question the integrity of the governor’s office.

Christie, he said, “has a lot of explaining to do.”

“I do not believe the governor called the Port Authority and said, ‘Close some lanes.’ But I did say I hold him responsible for the atmosphere. Now finding that that atmosphere existed in his own office is what I find really troubling,” Wisniewski said.

Christie’s name did not appear in the e-mails, he added.

The governor acknowledged that mistakes were made but previously forcefully denied the lane closures were politically motivated.

He said at a news conference last month that he could only repeat what another appointee, Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni, had said publicly blaming the lane closures and resulting congestion on the transportation analysis.

“Which is, they believed the traffic study was necessary and that they ordered it, but the way they did it was mistaken and they didn’t follow protocols,” Christie said.

In his statement on Monday, Christie said he was outraged by conduct he called inappropriate, unsanctioned and carried out without his knowledge.

“This behavior is not representative of me or my administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions,” he said.

Baroni has left his post as did Wildstein, who will testify before a legislative committee investigating the matter on Thursday, Wisniewski said.

In response to a phone message from Sokolich regarding an “urgent matter of public safety in Fort Lee” on the first day of the lane closures, Kelly asked Wildstein in an e-mail if the Mayor’s call had been returned.

Wildstein wrote to Kelly: “Radio silence. His name comes right after mayor Fulop.”

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, a Democrat who also didn’t endorse Christie, raised his own suspicions.

He claimed this week that his decision to not endorse the governor was met with news that New Jersey Cabinet and other high ranking officials were canceling meetings with him and that a pension reform bill he had worked on was scuttled by a Democrat who had backed Christie.

On the second morning of the closures, Sokolich apparently sent a text to Baroni: “Presently we have four very busy traffic lanes merging into only one toll booth. … The bigger problem is getting kids to school. Help please. It’s maddening.”

Seeing that text, a person whose name has been redacted from the e-mails and text messages writes to Wildstein: “Is it wrong that I am smiling?”

“No,” Wildstein responds.

“I feel badly about the kids,” the unknown person writes.

“They are the children of Buono voters,” responds Wildstein.

Barbara Buono was Christie’s Democratic opponent in the election last November.

On September 13, Wildstein wrote to Kelly that New York authorities gave “Fort Lee back all three lanes this morning. We are appropriately going nuts. Samson helping us to retaliate.”

David Samson chairs the Port Authority’s Board of Commissioners and is a close Christie ally.

Sokolich reached out to Wildstein on September 17 seeking an explanation.

“We should talk. Someone needs to tell me that the recent traffic debacle was not punitive in nature. The last four reporters that contacted me suggest that the people they are speaking with absolutely believe it to be punishment. Try as I may to dispel these rumors I am having a tough time. A private face-to-face would be important to me. Perhaps someone can enlighten me as to the errors of my ways. Let me know if you’ll give me 10 minutes. Regards, Mark,” Sokolich wrote.

Wildstein sent the texts to Baroni.

“Have not heard back from Bridget,” Wildstein noted.

“F**k,” Baroni wrote back.

On September 18, Wildstein e-mailed Bill Stepien, Christie’s campaign manager, and forwarded him a story from the Wall Street Journal titled “Bridge Jam’s Cause a Mystery.”

“I have empty boxes ready to take to work today, just in case,” Wildstein wrote, an apparent reference to being fired. “It will be a tough November for this little Serbian,” an apparent reference to Mayor Sokolich.

On October 3, Baroni asks Wildstein what the “Trenton feedback” is. Trenton is the capital of New Jersey and where Christie’s headquarters are.

“Good,” Wildstein wrote.

“Just good?” Baroni wrote. “S**t.”

“No I have only texted brudget (sic) and Nicole they were VERY happy,” Wildstein responded. “Both said you are doing great. Charlie said you did GREAT.”

The Port Authority, which is run jointly by New Jersey and New York, oversees the tunnels, bridges and seaports between the two states, as well as the metropolitan area’s airports.

Christie, who’s now criss-crossing the country, campaigning for fellow GOP governors as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, is seen as prime political target for national Democrats, who rarely attacked Christie during his re-election campaign but are now becoming more aggressive with the bridge controversy unfolding.

“These revelations are troubling for any public official, but they also indicate what we’ve come to expect from Governor Christie – when people oppose him, he exacts retribution. When people question him, he belittles and snidely jokes. And when anyone dares to look into his administration, he bullies and attacks,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chair, in a statement.

A source close to Christie said “there will probably be some sacrificial firing and that’ll be it.”

CNN’s Paul Steinhauser, Alan Silverleib and Dana Davidsen contributed to this report.