SHAWN BOBURG THE RECORD
Hours after unannounced lane closures went into effect at the George Washington Bridge on a Monday morning in September, Governor Christie’s top two executives at the Port Authority received an email indicating that the resulting traffic jams were posing problems that carried potential life-and-death consequences. Fort Lee police and medical personnel had been delayed while responding to a report of a missing child and a cardiac arrest, according to an email sent to the pair from a lower-ranking Port Authority employee.
Despite that warning — laid out in one of three internal agency emails obtained by The Record — the two Christie executives, who had quietly decided only days earlier to divert local lanes leading to the bridge, ignored the pleas of Fort Lee’s police and mayor, local officials have said. The lane diversions continued for four days until Pat Foye, the Port Authority’s executive director and an appointee of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, found out about them and angrily reversed the decision, which he called “abusive” and potentially illegal.
Former Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni and his top aide, David Wildstein, have since resigned amid a scandal over whether the lane diversions were meant to punish the Fort Lee mayor — a Democrat who did not endorse Christie for reelection.
The emails also appear to back up claims by Mayor Mark Sokolich that he began frantically calling Christie’s appointees at the agency looking for answers. He has said the authority officials didn’t return his numerous calls during the week of the traffic-pattern change. Sokolich declined to comment on Saturday.
The Christie administration has acknowledged a failure to notify local officials beforehand about what it has described as a traffic study. But the emails show there were early attempts to alert Christie’s executives at the Port Authority that their experiment might have dangerous consequences. And the documents are likely to raise questions about why those executives did not immediately respond to the warnings.
It’s unclear if Baroni and Wildstein read the email that was sent to them by an associate that Monday at 11:24 a.m., about 5½ hours after the local access lanes were reduced from three to one. The three emails obtained by The Record do not include any reply messages that the two executives may have sent, and they do not capture any verbal discussions that may have occurred. But they do provide a brief snapshot of deliberations between key figures at a critical time in the traffic-cone dispute, which has become a major headache for Christie as he emerges as an early front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
The controversy is unlikely to go away anytime soon.
The continuing high stakes were illustrated on Friday, when a Port Authority spokesman confirmed that Baroni and Wildstein had asked the agency to foot their outside legal bills. Several investigations into the incident continue. Both former executives have hired outside attorneys and have turned over documents to a state legislative panel that has used its subpoena power to compel testimony and documents. And the two could be called to testify under oath before that panel in the coming weeks as it looks into the motive for the lane closures, why agency protocol was bypassed and why Fort Lee officials were not informed.
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak declined to comment on the emails Saturday, citing an inquiry by the Port Authority’s inspector general. That inquiry is looking into whether there was any criminal wrongdoing.
With only one business day of advance notice, Wildstein ordered the lane diversions to take effect on the first day of school.
As people waited in traffic in Fort Lee, Cristina M. Lado, the agency’s director of government and community affairs for New Jersey, sent an email to Baroni and Wildstein that Monday morning.
“Wanted you both to have a heads up,” it began, “Peggy Thomas, [Fort Lee] Borough Administrator, called me regarding the increased volume and congestion of AM rush traffic throughout the Borough as a result of the GWB toll lanes adjustment that occurred.”
“She mentioned that there were 2 incidents that Ft Lee PD and EMS had difficulty responding to; a missing child (later found) and a cardiac arrest.”
Officials have since said they are not aware of any fatal consequences to the delays in emergency response.
The email, copied to the agency’s director of tunnels and bridges, Cedrick Fulton, also informed Baroni that the mayor “had placed calls to your office.”
Fort Lee officials said Friday that borough representatives placed calls to the office and cellphones of both Baroni and Lado during the week of lane diversions. During public appearances, Christie has questioned why Fort Lee officials did not contact Foye, the agency’s executive director. The Port Authority is a bi-state agency steered jointly by appointees of both governors.
When he testified before a legislative panel this month, Baroni acknowledged that “the communication was flawed internally, the communication was flawed with our neighbors, no question. And given the amount of time I spent building a relationship with Mark Sokolich, this was hugely problematic, personally.” At the time of his testimony, it was not clear that Sokolich had tried to make direct contact with Baroni several times and that Baroni had received emails and calls to his cellphone.
Agency officials knew they were causing anger on the first day of the lane changes, emails show. At 2:05 p.m., the manager of the George Washington Bridge, Robert Durando, sent an email to Fulton, his boss, and other agency officials in charge of tunnels and bridges. The subject line was “Raging Mad” and it described a call from an angry commuter stuck in the gridlock.
Durando has testified under oath that Wildstein ordered him to close the lanes but told him to keep it a secret from Fort Lee officials. Durando thought it was “wrong,” he testified, but was concerned about what would happen if he did not follow the orders of Wildstein, a former political consultant who went to high school with Christie and served as the governor’s eyes and ears within the agency.
In his email, Durando uses the initials “DW” and “BB,” apparent references to Wildstein and Baroni.
“I’ve been advised by DW that Mayor Sokolich called Baroni,” the Monday afternoon email states. “BB will get back to the Mayor ‘at some point.’ I’ve been directed by DW to continue the operation so that we can make a business decision with regard to how to proceed.”
Durando’s message topped an email that he had forwarded about an angry complaint from Dr. Richard Fried, a northern Bergen County resident who was delayed commuting to his job in Manhattan that day.
“Dr. Fried called asking to speak to you regarding the change in traffic pattern this morning,” stated the email to Durando from Lisa Herrera, a senior business manager in the department that oversees bridges and tunnels. “He spoke to Fort Lee Police and will call the governor’s office as well. He demands that public information be disseminated and an explanation given”
“Don’t shoot the messenger,” Herrera wrote at 1:56 p.m.
Contacted on Saturday, Fried, an internist who works on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and has been commuting across the bridge for 30 years, confirmed he had called to complain that morning and was told that they were trying out a new traffic pattern.
“I was really, really upset and angry because the explanations were just inadequate,” he said. “The explanations all sort of had the feeling of, ‘To hell with the commuter.’Ÿ”
He said the trip from his home, north of Fort Lee to the bridge toll plaza that Monday morning took him an hour. It usually takes 15 minutes. He said a Fort Lee police officer directing traffic on the street that morning told him: “Speak to the Port Authority, we don’t know anything about this.”
Fried said, “I’m wondering how many people, not just doctors, missed appointments they had that morning. The ripple implications are just phenomenal. Obviously, there will always be unanticipated problems, but it seems to have been done in a capricious manner on one of the busiest days of the year.”
He also disputed the suggestion, made by Baroni and Christie, that the local access lanes were exclusively for Fort Lee residents.
“A lot of people other than Fort Lee residents use those access lanes,” he said. He declined to say what municipality he lives in, other than to say it is in Bergen County, north of Fort Lee. Neither Wildstein nor Baroni responded to requests for comment Friday or Saturday. Port Authority Chairman David Samson did not respond to an email seeking comment on Friday.
It’s not clear yet whether the Port Authority will pay for the legal representation of Wildstein or Baroni.
The Port Authority provides current and former employees with legal representation if the action in question falls within their job duties, according to its bylaws. It will not pay if there was fraud, malice, misconduct or intentional wrongdoing, the bylaws state.
The Port Authority’s general counsel is reviewing the request, spokesman Chris Valens said Friday. He did not respond after he was asked for a copy of the written request.http://www.northjersey.com/fortlee/wildstein_baroni_gwb_port_authority_christie_fort_lee.html?page=a...