A Guide to Chris Christie's Fun Traffic Jam Scandal [UPDATED]
Image via Twitter Christie deputy chief Bridget Kelly celebrates her 40th birthday, as Christie hovers in the background.
Update, 4:35 p.m.: Christie has issued a statement denying all involvement in the controversy, and pledging to hold his staffers responsible. We've reprinted it in full at the end of this post.
If you were on Twitter earlier today, you might have noticed every reporter on the planet hyperventilating and repeating a number of words, chief among them "Chris Christie," "emails," and "traffic."
Oh, Jesus. Traffic? This sounds like one of those Important Civic Stories You Should Care About, a sort of eat-your-vegetables infrastructure deal, more soporific than a pound of Ambien and half your freshman reading list. Who gives a damn about this stuff besides transportation nerds and journalists, the two lowest lifeforms?
In fact, though, you're watching a tremendously entertaining little scandal in progress, featuring the governor of New Jersey, some deeply incriminating emails, and an ex-blogger and former small-town mayor who, with Christie's help, turned into one of the most powerful men at the Port Authority, and then used that position to extract mind-bogglingly petty revenge on his political enemies. It also has Chris Christie's top aides laughing at school buses full of stranded children. Let's get caught up, shall we?
Wait, so what happened?
On September 9, the first day of school, Fort Lee, New Jersey was snarled in a massive traffic jam, after two local access lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge were abruptly closed. Just one lane remained open. Fort Lee became a parking lot for the better part of a week. It was unpleasant. So unpleasant, in fact, that New Jersey State Assembly Member John Wisniewksi called a hearing in November, demanding an explanation from Bill Barroni, the Port Authority Deputy Executive Director on the New Jersey side, and his top aide, David Wildstein.
He called a hearing? Because of a traffic jam? Overreact much?
Yes, he did call a hearing, and no, it wasn't really an overreaction. Wisniewski, and pretty much everyone else looking at the Fort Lee knew lane closures this deliberately inconvenient had to have originated from somewhere.
David Wildstein, the second-in-command New Jersey guy at the Port Authority, told state lawmakers at the November hearing that the lane closures were due to a "traffic study," echoing an earlier press release from the Port Authority. The problem: nobody at the Port Authority besides Christie's guys knew about this planned "traffic study." Not, for example, Pat Foye, the Port Authority's Executive Director, who reportedly flew into a rage upon hearing about them. According to WNYC, Foye "charged in a heated email that the closures were made without proper public notice, in possible violation of the law, and, in fact, without his knowledge. He immediately reversed the closures."
The Port Authority Chairman, David Samson, had nothing whatsoever to say, declining to talk to reporters and skipping press conferences for two full months after the Fort Lee debacle. That looked odd, too, because Samson is a close friend and adviser to Chris Christie.
I'm getting bored. Where does the petty political revenge stuff come in?
Right, let's get to that. As it turns out, according to emails obtained by North Jersey newspaper The Record through an open records request, the lane closures were planned by Wildstein and a top Christie aide named Bridget Anne Kelly. She's one of Christie's three deputy chiefs of staff. The traffic jams, according to messages exchanged between Wildstein and Kelly, were a retaliatory move against Fort Lee's Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, who'd declined to endorse Christie's re-election bid.
According to the emails the Record obtained, Kelly wrote to Wildstein on August 13 at 7:34 a.m., telling him, "Time to create some traffic problems in Fort Lee."
"Got it," Wildstein replied.
Kelly and Wildstein went back and forth until mid-September, when Wildstein wrote: "We are ready to do this. Can you have someone call the Mayor of Springfield and tell him that Gov has approved $60k for their traffic study."
In other words, a guy from the Port Authority is telling the governor's top aide what the governor has approved, and what he's approved will create a massive traffic jam, under the guise of "studying" traffic in a neighboring town.
Yeah. It's shady.