Political scandals, especially those involving Port Authorities and access lanes and traffic studies, can be more than a little dense. And that goes double when New Jersey’s complex world of political fiefdoms is involved.
So here are the basics of the scandal that forced New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to spend almost two hours taking questions from reporters Thursday and has led to the ouster of two top aides.
How, exactly, did this get started?
In September, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey closed two of three local access lanes from Fort Lee, N.J., to the George Washington Bridge, which connects the two states and is the most heavily trafficked bridge in the world. The closures, which lasted four days, created a traffic bottleneck in Fort Lee that has been described as the worst traffic jam since Sept. 11, 2001.
How did it become a political issue?
In the days after the traffic jam, the media began asking questions — namely why two of three lanes were closed and why the authorities didn’t seem to be prepared for the ensuing traffic problems. The Port Authority said, at the time, that it was part of a traffic study. Two weeks later, New Jersey Democrats announced they would be looking more closely into the matter.
Christie was overwhelmingly re-elected on Nov. 5, taking 60 percent of the vote. But soon after his victory, Democrats began to allege that the lane closures were politically motivated — specifically, that Christie’s office created the traffic jam as political retribution against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, for not endorsing Christie’s re-election.
Do Democrats have proof?
At this point, the only thing that has really been proven is that Fort Lee was targeted for a traffic jam and that both Christie’s staff and his appointees at the Port Authority were involved. All of this became clear Wednesday when communications between Christie’s staff and the Port Authority officials were released. The documents, including emails and texts, were turned over as part of the state legislature’s investigation into the matter.
The communications do show that Christie’s people planned the traffic jam and were overjoyed about Sokolich’s problems. But there isn’t anything in the public record yet that suggests precisely why Fort Lee was targeted — be it a lack of an endorsement or anything else having to do with Sokolich.
Why would Christie’s office target a Democratic mayor for not endorsing him?
In most states and in most races, a Republican governor would hardly expect a Democrat’s endorsement, and certainly wouldn’t move to punish one who declined to give one. But this is New Jersey, and the same rules rarely apply. In fact, Christie was endorsed by several Democratic mayors and has a good relationship with some Democratic state legislators, including state Senate President Stephen Sweeney.
Was Christie involved?
To this point, there is no evidence showing Christie knew about or took part in the scheme. Christie has issued strong, blanket denials.
So who was involved?
So far, there are three major players.
1. Bridget Anne Kelly: Christie’s now-former deputy chief of staff appeared to get the ball rolling by sending an email to a Port Authority official saying, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Christie announced her firing Thursday, eviscerating her conduct and saying she lied to him about her involvement in the lane closures.
2. David Wildstein: He was the Port Authority official on the receiving end of Kelly’s email, to which he responded: “Got it.” From the beginning, he was the Port Authority official who Christie said was behind the “traffic study.” An appointee of Christie, he announced his resignation from the Port Authority in early December.
3. Bill Baroni: He was Christie’s top appointee on the Port Authority. He resigned a week after Wildstein. Christie said at the time that he had already planned to replace Baroni with someone else but added that Baroni had failed to follow proper protocol in informing local officials about Wildstein’s “traffic study.”
And what was in these emails and texts?
A whole bunch of juicy plotting and ill-advised commentary. Besides the initial exchange between Kelly and Wildstein, there was:
• Further talk in advance of the lane closures about the “traffic study” that they were preparing.
• Talking about Sokolich’s frustration, an unidentified person said, “Is it wrong that I am smiling?” and added, “I feel badly about the kids … I guess.”
• Another person responds, “They are the children of Buono voters,” referring to Christie’s Democratic opponent in the 2013 campaign.
After the Wall Street Journal questioned the lane closures, Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien said, “The mayor is an idiot,” and Wildstein added, “It will be a tough November for this little Serbian” — apparently a reference to the Croatian Sokolich.
Stepien’s remarks cost him dearly. In addition to Kelly’s firing, Christie announced Thursday that he has told Stepien not to put his name in for state party chairman and to withdraw his consultancy to the Republican Governors Association, of which Christie recently took the helm.
Christie said he had no reason to believe Stepien was involved in the wrongdoing, but that his conduct after the fact shows a lack of judgment.
Why then is Christie in trouble?
Christie’s problem is that he was previously very dismissive of the scandal, calling it “not that big a deal” and accusing the media of sensationalism. He even joked about moving traffic cones himself. Christie also said that the lane closures weren’t political in nature and that he didn’t believe his staff was involved.
All of these statements, of course, turned out to be either false or just plain unhelpful. And Christie had some ’splainin’ to do. Recognizing the tough spot he was in, Christie apologized profusely Thursday, holding a news conference lasting one hour and 48 minutes in which he said the word “apology” or “apologize” 34 times — along with firing a staff member and sanctioning another top aide.
Is any of this illegal?
Probably. But it’s also not clear that criminal charges will result.
Jim Cohen, a professor at Fordham University Law School, puts it this way: “There’s no doubt that the actions, whether Christie is responsible or not, violated a host of federal and state regulations. It’s not clear at this point that there is criminal liability, but there certainly may be civil liability, such as for business losses caused by the traffic jam.”
More than anything, this is a public relations nightmare for Christie’s office, which now has to deal with the perception that it uses official resources for political payback — and also that it did so at the expense of schoolchildren in Fort Lee.
OK, so what is a Port Authority?
Why didn’t you ask sooner?
This is a governing body that manages transit — via bridges, tunnels and air — in New York City and northern New Jersey. It is run jointly by the governors of New York and New Jersey and features appointees of both.