Aide Witnessed Traffic Chaos, New NJ Bridge Documents Show
ABC's Shushannah Walshe, Josh Margolin, Aaron Katersky, David Meyers, and Josh Haskell report:
Thousands of pages of documents released Friday show officials loyal to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie went out of their way to try and show lane closures leading to the world's busiest bridge in September were part of a traffic study, yet it's clear it was instead political payback. One of Christie's top aides at the agency even went to the bridge to witness the first day of the massive traffic snarl.
The documents show officials even put together a PowerPoint presentation purporting to be a traffic study to cover their true reason for the four days of lane closures that led to standstill traffic leading to the George Washington Bridge, titling it an early assessment of the "Reallocation of Toll Lanes at the GWB."
There was no evidence in the new batch of documents linking Christie directly to the lane closures. He apologized repeatedly in a nearly two-hour press conference Thursday and said he had no knowledge of the political motivations of his aides.
On Wednesday, emails from some of his top aides became public, revealing the apparent true motivation of the lane closures: to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, who had refused to endorse Christie's 2013 re-election campaign, which the governor won in a landslide. One of Christie's deputy chiefs of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, sent an August 13 email to David Wildstein, Christie's high school friend and appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, saying "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." Wildstein replied, "Got it."
The documents reveal Wildstein was intimately involved in the planning and execution of the lane closures, to the point that he was present at the bridge connecting Fort Lee and New York City the first day to observe the chaos.
The Port Authority was told by Fort Lee officials on the first day that the lane closures were possibly a life-threatening situation, citing slowed responses to a 91-year-old woman who had died and a 4-year-old missing girl, who was later found. The family of the woman who died has said they believe she passed away at home before the ambulance became snarled in traffic.
"Wanted you both have a heads-up - Peggy Thomas, Borough Administrator, called me regarding the increased volume and congestion," wrote Port Authority employee Tino Lado to Wildstein and Baroni.
"She mentioned there were two incidents that the Ft. Lee police department and EMS had difficulty responding to: a missing child (later found) and a cardiac arrest … If there is anything you need me to do, let me know."
The documents also reveal the internal rift between Christie's appointees at the Port Authority and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's appointees.
There was no apparent action until September 13, when Cuomo appointee Patrick Foye stepped in and ordered the lanes reopened. In an email that day, Bill Baroni, Christie's appointee to the Port Authority, said to Foye: "Pat we need to discuss prior to any communications."
Foye sent a scathing e mail back: "Bill we are going to fix this fiasco….I will get to the bottom of this abusive decision which violates everything this agency stands for; I intend to learn how Port Authority process was wrongfully subverted and the public interest damaged to say nothing of the credibility of this agency."
The emails also show Wildstein's belief the scandal would blow over at some point.
On October 9, a Port Authority staff member, Philippe Danielides, emailed Wildstein with clips of recent media stories all questioning whether the lane closings were part of a political vendetta.
"Has any thought been given to writing an op-ed or providing a statement about the GWB study? Or is the plan just to hunker down and grit our way through it?," Danielides writes Wildstein.
Wildstein's response: "Yes and yes."
They also reveal that last month, as the scandal was deepening and appointees were only days from being fired, Christie's press secretary was part of an email discussion in which Wildstein suggested using a 2010 letter from the Fort Lee mayor against him.
Three years earlier, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich complained about traffic and threatened to shut down roads that the Fort Lee police controlled in an effort to gain cooperation from bridge managers. The Christie aide, Michael Drewniak, and Wildstein kicked around the idea of putting out Sokolich's earlier letter, arguing that it showed the mayor had made illegal threats to tie up traffic and possibly cause public safety problems in his own town-precisely what happened in September.
The documents also reveal hundreds of reporter inquiries about the developing scandal. On September 13, Baroni instructs a media aide how to address the press inquiries writing:
"The Port Authority has conducted a week study at the GWB of traffic safety patterns. We will now review those results and determine the best traffic patterns at the GWB. We will continue to work with local law enforcement partners."
However as the media requests and stories increased a media aide at the Port Authority tells Wildstein, Baroni and others in numerous e mails, "I will not respond unless directed otherwise to do so."
The documents also show that just days before the lane closures an email exchange between two Port Authority staffers questioned why top executives at the agency would request something as mechanical as a traffic study.
"This is a 24×7 toll plaza change that the 15 th floor is seeking," wrote one bureaucrat. The response "Don't know why the 15 th floor is involved."
The 15th floor is Port Authority colloquialism for the executive suite.
New Jersey state assembly Democrats obtained the documents through subpoenas issued to Wildstein, Baroni, and others. Both resigned last month over the unfolding scandal. Sources with the state assembly tell ABC News their next push will be to get the information that is heavily redacted from these documents.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat and chairman of the state's transportation committee, said it is likely that Kelly and Bill Stepien, Christie's former campaign manager and political guru who were both fired Thursday will likely to be called to testify as well as others named in these documents.