New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie high school pal is accused of severely disrupting traffic in one town in an act of political retribution. It sounds almost too "Jersey" to be believed, but a hearing held by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on Monday suggested that the claim has merit. That ally, David Wildstein, was a high-ranking member of the Port Authority staff until resigning his position last week.From September 9th to 13th, two of the three toll booths on the western side of the Port-Authority-managed George Washington Bridge were closed. That resulted in a massive backup into Fort Lee, New Jersey — which was completely unprepared for the interruption that happened to coincide with the first week of school. And Wildstein, according to testimony from the hearing, appears to be entirely to blame.
Wildstein is a long-time participant in New Jersey politics, a high school friend of Christie's, and the appointed second-in-command of the Jersey contingent at the Port Authority. Wildstein ordered the lane closures leading onto the bridge — one of three routes from New Jersey into Manhattan — according to testimony on Monday. And it was Wildstein who assured transit staffers they didn't need to inform Fort Lee. "Don’t worry about that," Wildstein reportedly said. "We will take care of it." He didn't. Last week, Wildstein resigned, calling the issue "a distraction."
If Monday's hearing was meant to provide an explanation for the closures, it didn't. Speculation centered on it being an act of political retribution, punishment for the mayor of Fort Lee, a Democrat, being one of the (relatively few) public officials in the state not to endorse Christie's reelection earlier this year. Mayor Mark Sokolich raised the possibility of retribution himself in a letter to the Port Authority during the closures. According to NJ.com, the September 12th letter "expresses the mayor’s belief that the closures were 'punitive,' and asks that they be lifted, 'quietly, uneventfully and without political fanfare.'" They were, the next day.
Sokolich's frustration is understandable. Closing the three lanes resulted in what NorthJersey.com described as "doubled, tripled and in some cases, quadrupled commuting times." Since it hadn't been told, the city was completely unprepared for the closures, which had far worse effects than longer commutes: "On the first day alone, the borough had to contend with a missing 4-year old, a cardiac arrest and a car that had run up against a building, said Police Chief Keith Bendul." Why did it happen? Fort Lee officials and the media were told that the closures were a necessary part of a traffic study.
At Monday's hearing, it was revealed that no study was taking place. The New York Times reports:
[T]estifying under subpoena in Trenton on Monday, bridge workers described Mr. Christie’s associates’ ordering the closings, and called the different maneuvers “unprecedented,” “odd” and “wrong.” There was, they said, no study.
Bridge manager Robert Durando went further: "in 35 years at the Port Authority, he had never heard of lanes being closed down for a traffic study."
It likely goes without saying that the implications for Christie are significant. His reelection was widely hailed as a significant step down the path toward a presidential bid, one predicated on his ability to garner support from both Democrats and Republicans to effect change. Suggestions that a staffer demanded a traffic disruption as an act of revenge — acting on his own or at Christie's direction — at worst spoils Christie's carefully developed public image. The Wall Street Journal's Ted Mann notes that a Christie spokesman called the accusation "crazy." But it apparently resonates with Port Authority director Pat Foye. "The use of any of our facilities other than in the public interest is improper," Foye said, according to WNYC radio. Foye also reportedly said that the closures were a violation of law, though it's not clear how.
The radio station described the most telling moment in Monday's hearing:
“Your testimony tells me there is a culture of fear – is there a culture of fear?” [Assemblymember John] Wisniewski asked Durando.
There was a very long pause. Ten seconds. An eternity.
“I think your answer speaks for itself.”