Documents show US officials scrambled to control the publicity damage after lane closings near the George Washington Bridge sparked a traffic scandal that now threatens the rise of Republican star and potential 2016 presidential candidate Chris Christie.
Christie, the larger-than-life New Jersey governor, has apologized repeatedly and fired a top aide after documents this week revealed that officials in his administration may have intentionally caused traffic jams at the foot of one of the world’s busiest bridges in an act of political revenge.
In their writings, officials appointed by Christie, seemed more concerned about the political fallout than the damage done by lane closures. Federal prosecutors are investigating.
Christie previously had said his staff had nothing to do with the lane closings in September last year at the George Washington Bridge, which connects New Jersey and New York City, and he still says he had no personal knowledge of them.
The lane closures caused hours long delays at one of the major gateways to New York City. Documents show that Christie’s aides appeared to close the lanes to punish the Democratic mayor of the town of Fort Lee, which sits at one end of the bridge, for refusing to endorse the governor during his recent re-election campaign.
The documents released on Friday indicate short tempers as cars and trucks piled up.
“I had an unpleasant interaction with Fort Lee police chief and assistant chief about congesting the Borough, and preventing the smooth flow of emergency response vehicles throughout the Borough,” Robert Durando, the bridge’s general manager, said in a Sept. 9 e-mail. “Their characterization was that the ‘test’ was a monumental failure.”
In the e-mail that ordered the lanes reopened four days later, the executive director of the bridge’s operator, Patrick 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 e-mail to Christie’s scheduling secretary.
Later that morning, Baroni e-mailed 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.”
The New Jersey governor has cast himself as a straight-talking politician who transcends partisan politics, but the scandal has him on the defensive.
“I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team,” the famously blunt Christie said on Thursday during a nearly two-hour press conference.
Both Democrats and Republicans said the governor’s presidential prospects could be severely undermined if evidence emerges that contradicts his denials.
Christie traveled to Fort Lee on Thursday to personally apologize to the mayor and community residents.
However, the issue is far from over.
US Attorney Paul Fishman is reviewing the case, and the general inspector of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the bridge, is also investigating.
The scandal comes on the eve of a second term for Christie that was designed to be a springboard to a national campaign.
In less than two weeks, he plans to celebrate his inauguration at Ellis Island, a historic gateway for millions of immigrants and a symbolic location designed to showcase his broad appeal.