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Damage-control scramble followed New Jersey lane closings

By Geoff Mulvihill & Angela Delli Santi

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 02:57 p.m. HST, Jan 10, 2014

TRENTON, N.J. >> Officials squabbled over media leaks and worried about bad publicity in the days after lane closings near the George Washington Bridge caused huge traffic jams that now appear to have been politically orchestrated by members of Gov. Chris Christie's administration, documents released today show.

In the documents, officials appointed by Christie seemed more concerned about the political fallout than the effects of the gridlock in the town of Fort Lee during four mornings in September. 

The thousands of pages were released by a New Jersey legislative committee investigating the scandal, which could haunt Christie's expected run for president in 2016. The documents mostly involve the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency that runs the bridge.

Lawmakers are looking into allegations that Christie loyalists engineered the tie-ups to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie for re-election.

The documents show that the traffic mess created tension between New York and New Jersey appointees at the Port Authority, with the New York side angrily countermanding the lane closings.

In the correspondence, Port Authority chairman David Samson, a Christie appointee, suggested that the authority's executive director, Patrick Foye, who was appointed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, had leaked to a reporter an internal memo ordering an end to the lane closings. 

Samson called that possibility "very unfortunate for NY/NJ relations."

On Thursday, Christie moved to contain the damage from the scandal, firing his deputy chief of staff, cutting ties to one of his chief political advisers and apologizing for the traffic jams. Two Christie appointees at the Port Authority resigned last month as the scandal unfolded.

Christie has denied any involvement in the lane closings, and the two batches of documents released on Wednesday and today do not implicate him.

The latest documents contain several emails from Port Authority media relations staff to higher-ups reporting on calls from reporters with questions about the closings. The agency did not respond to those calls.

It was Foye's Sept. 13 email that ordered the lanes reopened that generated deep discussion. In it, Foye called the decision to close the lanes "abusive" and added, "I believe this hasty and ill-advised decision violates federal law."

Bill Baroni, the Christie-appointed deputy director who has since resigned, forwarded a copy of the angry email to Christie's scheduling secretary.

Later that morning, Baroni emailed Foye: "I am on my way to office to discuss. There can be no public discourse."

Foye responded: "Bill that's precisely the problem: there has been no public discourse on this." 

Baroni later authorized a statement for reporters explaining that the closings were part of a traffic study.

In recent weeks, there have been questions about the whether the closings were part of a legitimate study. 

Christie himself said on Thursday: "I don't know whether this was a traffic study that then morphed into a political vendetta or a political vendetta that morphed into a traffic study."

The newly released documents show that there was, in fact, a traffic study that was done, or at least a preliminary one. Two versions turned up in the documents -- one was six pages and the other 16. Both were dated Sept. 12, the day before the lanes reopened.

The documents include study findings that Baroni gave to lawmakers at a hearing last year: When the lanes were closed, the main bridge traffic moved a bit faster, but local traffic had major delays. 

Michael Cassidy, a University of California-Berkeley engineering professor who occasionally works with the California Department of Transportation, told The Associated Press that the preliminary study appears to be a legitimate internal report of the sort transportation officials often circulate among themselves.

"It could well be a good-faith effort, if not the finest in the annals. I cannot say this is not a study," he said. "You wouldn't want to publish it in an academic journal."

How to deal with the fallout from the traffic jams became an issue.

In an Oct. 9 email exchange under the subject "morning clips," Philippe Danielides, a senior adviser at the Port Authority, asked David Wildstein, a Christie appointee at the agency who has since resigned, "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?"

"Yes and yes," Wildstein replied. 

The documents also showed confusion from some Port Authority employees as the closings were starting.

One employee asked, "What is driving this?" Another responded that he was wondering the same thing: "It seems like we are punishing all for the sake of a few."

And another employee passed along a complaint from a woman who said that her husband, who had been out of work for more than a year, was 40 minutes late for a job interview because of the tie-ups.

One Port Authority police officer went searching for answers.

"The undersigned inquired if this is a permanent plan or temporary," Capt. Darcy Licorish wrote in an email recounting her meeting with the bridge manager. "The manager could not supply an answer to that or other questions. Inquiry was also made as to the notifications of the township. No answers could be supplied."


AP reporters David Porter and Katie Zezima in Newark, Jim Fitzgerald in White Plains, N.Y. and Cara Anna in New York contributed to this report.

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jusjoking wrote:
This whole story bring to mind the H-1 freeway blunders. Painting out a lane for east bound commuters for a few years at Kunia interchange and leaving the zipper lane in place for westbound during the afternoon rush hour........ Must of been an evil plot to get west side voters to approve Da train.
on January 10,2014 | 11:53AM
Squiggs wrote:
Good luck republicans; god bless them all!
on January 10,2014 | 12:40PM
hanalei395 wrote:
May the Force be with them.
on January 10,2014 | 01:04PM
loquaciousone wrote:
Way to Guv Chris. Throw them all unda the bus...I KNOW NOTHIN....I SEE NOTHIN...I HEAR NOTHIN.
on January 10,2014 | 01:09PM
Maneki_Neko wrote:
I think the Fat Boy is pretty well scroo'd. Either he he was part of the deal or was ignorant of what his staff was doing - either of those speaks poorly of his management. And why would his staff think the shut down was a good idea unless that is the way Fat Boy thinks>

Put a fork in the Fat Boy. He's done.

on January 10,2014 | 02:04PM
loquaciousone wrote:
He sounds like Tricky Dick, "I AM NOT A CROOK!" or Billy Clinton, "I DID NOT HAVE SEX WITH THAT WOMAN!"
on January 10,2014 | 02:38PM
hanalei395 wrote:
On August 9, 1974, "Watergate" Crook, Nixon, was done. ... 40 years later, sometime this year, "Bridgegate" Bully, Christie, will also be done.
on January 10,2014 | 03:31PM
st1d wrote:
that's right, ignore benghazi, the irs illegal activities, the nsa sweeping invasion of us citizen privacy, the failed obamadontcare rollout, all described by democrats as "phony issues" and bring the nation's focus on a traffic jam. a traffic jam that the gov has already issued an apology and punishments for those involved. unlike the "phony issues" that still evade explanation or criminal investigations.
on January 10,2014 | 02:53PM
Squiggs wrote:
One more republican liar about to bite the dust.
on January 10,2014 | 05:51PM
st1d wrote:
only a dumbercrat could raise a traffic jam to the level of benghazi, acorn embezzlement, voter fraud, irs and nsa illegal activities.
on January 10,2014 | 06:55PM
Ronin006 wrote:
It is a shame and downright unprofessional that the liberal media has not given the same intense coverage to the many Obama scandals. Oh, but wait. Obama is a Democrat
on January 10,2014 | 06:48PM
Squiggs wrote:
yes, it is a shame, but the truth is, one more republican liar is about to bite the dust.
on January 10,2014 | 06:59PM
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