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Emails seen as revealing plan for retribution against N.J. mayor's non-support for Christie re-election

Andrew Seidman and Maddie Hanna, The Philadelphia Inquirer • Updated Jan 9, 2014 at 11:44 AM

TRENTON, N.J. (MCT) – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie denied Wednesday that he had knowledge of a plot to exact political retribution against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, as documents surfaced implicating a top aide to the governor in causing a four-day traffic jam in the borough by closing several access lanes to the George Washington Bridge.

The once-obscure controversy over restricting access from the Bergen County borough to the bridge in September has been transformed into the biggest political headache of Christie's tenure.

Emails subpoenaed by lawmakers, and obtained by The Philadelphia Inquirer and other media Wednesday, show that Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's deputy chief of staff, signaled one of the governor's political appointees at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge, to set the apparent scheme in motion.

"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Kelly wrote in an Aug. 13 email to David Wildstein, a former Christie appointee at the Port Authority, according to the documents.

"Got it," Wildstein immediately responded.

He resigned last month.

The closures clogged traffic for four days on the busiest bridge in the world. The traffic caused delays for emergency responders on four occasions, including transporting an unconscious 91-year-old woman to the hospital, the Bergen Record reported Wednesday. It was unclear if the delay had a role in her eventual death.

Christie's top appointee at the Port Authority had told legislators that the closures in mid-September were part of a traffic study. The appointee, former Republican State Sen. Bill Baroni, also has since resigned.

Democrats say they have dispelled that explanation, and the assemblyman leading the investigation into the controversy said the documents released Wednesday "eliminate any other plausible explanation" for the closures besides political retribution.

Some Democrats say Christie's appointees at the Port Authority ordered the closings to exact revenge against Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, for not endorsing the Republican governor for re-election last November.

Others, including the executive director of the Port Authority, an appointee of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have disputed the account that the disruptions were caused by a traffic study and said they were aware of no such study.

Christie had denied that his staff was involved in the scheme. When the controversy first arose, he downplayed it and joked that he had personally moved cones on the bridge.

In a statement Wednesday, his tone changed considerably. He said he was "outraged and deeply saddened" to learn "a member of my staff" had misled him, adding that "this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge."

"This behavior is not representative of me or my administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions," Christie said.

He did not name the staff member or say what action he might take.

Christie earlier postponed his only scheduled public event, an 11 a.m. post-Hurricane Sandy housing announcement in Manahawkin.

Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski, the Democrat who is leading the investigation into the closures, said the revelations marked a "sad day for New Jersey" and showed "government at its worst."

"They call into serious question the honesty of this governor and his staff," Wisniewski said at a Statehouse news conference.

But while he said Christie had lost credibility in initially saying his staff was not involved in the traffic study, the assemblyman said he had not seen "any emails that have the governor's name on it."

He said the traffic-study suggestion amounted to a "cover-up."

According to the documents, obtained by The Inquirer from a person familiar with the investigation, Baroni sent Wildstein an email Sept. 9 referring to a phone call from Sokolich about an "urgent matter of public safety in Fort Lee."

Kelly asked Wildstein in an email whether Sokolich's call had been returned.

"Radio silence," Wildstein responded. "His name comes right after mayor Fulop," referring to Steven Fulop of Jersey City, another Democratic mayor who did not endorse the governor.

In the exchanges, Baroni referred to Sokolich as "Serbia." The mayor is of Croatian heritage.

In an apparent text message Sept. 10 to Baroni, Sokolich said: "Presently we have four very busy traffic lanes merging into only one toll booth...The bigger problem is getting kids to school. Help please. It's maddening."

The text that follows – from an unnamed sender – reads: "Is it wrong that I am smiling?"

In a follow-up text, when the sender says, "I feel badly about the kids," another responds, "They are the children of Buono voters," referring to State Sen. Barbara Buono of Middlesex County, Christie's Democratic opponent in his re-election campaign.

Buono said Wednesday that Christie had "created a culture where cavalierly endangering citizens' lives to exact political retribution is an acceptable form of governance."

Sokolich told CNN that the lane closures were "the lowest, most venomous form of political retaliation."

Parts of the exchanges in the documents were redacted. Wisniewski – who said he had received 3,000 to 5,000 pages of documents through subpoenas – said that Baroni and Wildstein submitted the documents with redactions, but that he was unclear why.

Also included in communications about the lane closures was Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien, whom the governor has tapped as the next chairman of the state GOP.

In a Sept. 18 email to Wildstein responding to an article in the Wall Street Journal questioning the motive for the closures, Stepien said, "It's fine," and called Sokolich "an idiot."

Stepien did not respond to an email seeking comment. He was also recently hired by the Christie-led Republican Governors Association as a consultant. An RGA spokesman said Thursday that Stepien "will absolutely continue to be a valued consultant and adviser for the RGA."

Neither Baroni nor Wildstein could be reached. Wildstein's lawyer, Alan Zegas, also could not be reached.

Wisniewski has issued Wildstein a subpoena to appear Thursday before the Assembly transportation committee. At the news conference, Wisniewski said Wildstein had filed a motion to quash the subpoena.

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