New York officials livid over covert closures on George Washington Bridge, say documents
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TRENTON, N.J - Top New York officials on the Port Authority were livid that their New Jersey counterparts allied with Gov. Chris Christie covertly ordered lanes near the George Washington Bridge closed in September, causing huge traffic jams, endangering lives and likely violating state and federal laws, new documents showed Friday.
The new documents revealed machinations to make it appear a traffic study was being done, keep local Fort Lee officials and residents protesting the resulting chaos in the dark and to deflect press questions after PA Executive Director Patrick Foye ordered a halt to the lane closures.
"I believe this hasty and ill-advised decision violates Federal Law and the laws of both states," an irate Foye emailed PA executives who included Christie appointees.
"To be clear, I will get to the bottom of this abusive decision which violates everything this agency stands for; I intend to learn how PA process was wrongfully subverted and the public interest damaged to say nothing of the credibility of this agency."
The nearly 2,000 pages of documents were released by a New Jersey legislative committee one day after Christie apologized for the closures, orchestrated by a top aide and David Wildstein, one of his PA appointees, to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie for re-election.
The Republican governor, a potential 2016 Republican presidential contender, sought Thursday to contain the damage, firing a top aide he said had "lied to me" to cover up the political motives for the closures and cutting ties with a top political adviser.
Christie said he wasn't aware of their actions until emails and texts surfaced Wednesday. He hasn't been implicated in the scheme.
Emails showed that PA officials from New Jersey refused to answer questions from Port Authority police about the closures, and that even top bridge staff weren't sure why a purported traffic study was launched to justify the closures or how long it would last.
One email showed officials put together a presentation on the third day of the massive traffic jams that sought to report "early assessment of the benefits" of a traffic study. It said the conclusions were "TBD," or to be determined.
Another email revealed that officials left the closures in place even after complaints that emergency vehicles were having trouble getting through the snarled traffic.
The emails also showed that New Jersey officials scrambled to control damaging and even privately accusing Foye -- an appointee of New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo -- of leaking internal memos on the matter to the news media.
Foye ordered the lanes reopened Sept. 13. That morning, David Wildstein, the Port Authority director for interstate capital projects, and Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's deputy chief of staff -- corresponded.
"The New York side gave Fort Lee back all three lanes this morning," Wildstein wrote. "We are appropriately going nuts. Samson helping us retaliate," a reference to Port Authority chairman David Samson, a Christie appointee.
"What??" Kelly replied three minutes later.
"Yes, unreal," Wildstein concluded.
The Cuomo administration declined to comment Friday.
Documents that emerged Wednesday demonstrated the lane closures that started Sept. 9 were meant as political revenge on the mayor of Fort Lee.
"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Kelly wrote to Wildstein.
"Got it," he replied.
Foye wasn't the only irate New York appointee. Port Authority Vice Chairman Scott Rechler emailed about the closures: "This is terribly disturbing and incomprehensible to me. How can a decision like this be made without it being discussed and considered at the highest level?"
Commuters were furious, too.
One person complained that the Port Authority "doesn't care about their customers and they are playing God with people's jobs." The caller said the traffic jam caused her husband to be 40 minutes late to work "a job he just got after being out of work for 1 yr +."
Police stuck with the job of sorting out the chaos were kept out of the loop.
In one email dated Sept. 6, Deputy Police Inspector Darcy Licorish of the Port Authority was invited by Robert Durando, bridge manager, to be "briefed on facility operation." Told about plans to use just one entrance lane to the bridge, Licorish asked whether this was permanent or temporary.
"The manager could not supply an answer to that or other questions," wrote Licorish, who then asked if townships were notified. "No answers could be supplied."
Emails say Durando "was instructed by Wildstein," to "change the traffic pattern."
A New Jersey legislator said Friday the documents gave a "partial picture."
"The emails raise significant questions about the authenticity of the governor's statement" on Thursday, said State Assembly Deputy Speaker John Wisniewski. the transportation Committee chair. "What you see is a number of significant figures in the governor's administration who were involved either in the immediate days of the lane closures or in the effort to keep a lid on the media inquiries about the lane closure all the way through approving the exit statement for David Wildstein when he resigned."
Wisniewski apparently referred to a Dec. 6 email from Michael Drewniak sent to Wildstein. It contained a draft resignation statement and a note: "This is my revised -- which I sent to the Gov and he approved . . ."
The email doesn't indicate that Wildstein's resignation was tied to the lane closure controversy.
With Michael Gormley
Read some of the emails, letters and documents released by the New Jersey legislative committee