No Exit

01.09.14

In New Jersey, There’s No Exit for Chris Christie’s Bridge Trolls

In Fort Lee, the full scope of the insanity of the traffic jam that top political aides ordered is finally hitting home—for the governor, too.

The most infamous traffic cones in America sat on a curb by the Fort Lee entrance to the George Washington Bridge on Wednesday.

These were the very orange cones that had been arrayed across the entrance after a senior troll to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie emailed a Port Authority official.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly emailed at 7:34 a.m. on Aug. 13, 2013.

The recipient, a Christie troll at the Port Authority named David Wildstein, emailed back at 7:35 a.m., only a minute later.

“Got it.”  

But Wildstein’s almost-instant response was not out of any hurry to proceed with the scheme. 

Just as true trolls might, they waited three weeks to the morning of Sept. 9, the first day of school.

The scandal is not just that the lanes were closed, but that the closing was timed to blindside kids as they waited excitedly and maybe already a little nervously for the bus in their back-to-school clothes and their new backpacks and fresh notebooks.

One of those kids was the son—then aged 3, now 4—of the dad who works the counter at E-Z Car Rental just two short blocks from where the lanes were closed. The boy was forced to wait two hours for the bus on his first day of school, before he even had a chance to then sit in traffic. 

Dad in the meantime called the school, which truthfully pronounced itself mystified.

“They just had no idea at all,” he recalled on Wednesday.

He also called the bus company. 

“They just said, ‘Our driver’s stuck somewhere, it’s a complete mess,’” he remembered.

The dad, who asked to not be quoted by name, was still amazed that anybody would deliberately do that to school kids.

“It was something extraordinary,” he told me. “It was something completely different… Bad.”

He had read the emails and texts that had surfaced in the news Wednesday morning, including a message from Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich to Christie’s most senior troll on the Port Authority, the then-deputy executive director, Bill Baroni.

 “The bigger problem is getting kids to school,” Sokolich wrote. 

Wildstein saw the text and there was an exchange between him and another person, who is identified in some accounts at Kelly.

 “Is it wrong that I am smiling?” one of them asked, but adding with correct grammar and even a stirring of conscience, “I feel badly about the kids.”

“They’re the children of Buono voters,” the other one said, referring to Christie’s Democratic challenger, Barbara Buono

That line so outraged the dad at E-Z Car Rental that he repeated it aloud on Wednesday afternoon. He then said simply, “It was uncalled for.”

“Someone needs to tell me the recent traffic debacle was not punitive in nature…. Try as I might to dispel these rumors, I am having a tough time.”

A line of five America flags was snapping in the icy wind outside the rental office. An emergency vehicle marked “Fort Lee Ambulance” came up the street.

“We weren’t working that day, thank God!” one of the two paramedics in the front said.

But the ambulance was a reminder of a Baroni email that Wildstein forwarded to Kelly on the first of the five days of lane closings.

“Subject:  Fwd: Phone call; Mayor Sokolich re: urgent matter of public safety in Fort Lee.”

Kelly had asked Wildstein: “Did he call him back?”

Wildstein had answered: “Radio silence.”

Kelly had replied, “Ty,” meaning “thank you.”

As should have been easy to surmise, Sokolich’s concern regarding public safety was that the traffic would impede emergency vehicles. There would be four documented instances that first day, involving a missing 4-year-old child, a car accident in which four people were injured, a man suffering chest pains, and a 91-year-old unconscious woman. 

Paramedics were unable to reach the woman for seven minutes. She subsequently died when she went into cardiac arrest at the hospital, but—as of yet, anyway—nobody is saying the delay caused her death. 

What is certain is it is a violation of New Jersey law to create conditions that “impede or render dangerous the use of a roadway by others,” most particularly emergency vehicles.

To his credit, Sokolich’s priority during the lane closings was to get the traffic moving again. He texted Baroni on the second day of the closures, saying “My frustration is now trying to figure out who is mad at me.”

Sokolich did not yet imagine that Christie’s aides were punishing all of Fort Lee, including the kids and the stricken, because he had failed to endorse their boss in an easy election. The mayor continued to prove willing to subsume pride for the sake of duty, messaging Baroni, “Someone needs to tell me the recent traffic debacle was not punitive in nature. The last four reporters that contacted me suggested that the people they are speaking with absolutely believe it to be punishment. Try as I might to dispel these rumors, I am having a tough time.”

He added, “A private face-to-face would be important to me. Perhaps someone can enlighten me as to the error of my ways.”

Sokolich remained relatively quiet for the sake of peace and avoided any grandstanding even after the truth began to emerge and Wildstein resigned, followed by Baroni. Democrats on the New Jersey Assembly Committee on Transportation initiated an investigation and issued subpoenas that produced the revelatory emails and texts. These included communications between Wildstein and Bill Stepien, Christie’s campaign manager. Stepien told Wildstein not to worry about a Sept. 18 article in The Wall Street Journal about the lane closings.

“Ultimately not an awful story. Whatever,” Stepien wrote, then adding a twist on an old expression, “When some lose some.”

Wildstein wrote of the Fort Lee mayor, “It will be a tough November for this little Serbian.” Never mind that Sokolich is actually of Croatian extraction.

Another email to Wildstein is from Michael Drewniak, Christie’s press secretary. It contains a statement said to have been personally cleared by the governor.

“Mr. Wildstein has been a tireless advocate for New Jersey’s interests at the Port Authority. We are grateful for his commitment and dedication to the important work of the Port Authority and thank him for his service to the people of New Jersey and the region.”

Initially, Christie had shrugged off any questions about the GWB lane closing, jesting, “I moved the cones, actually. Unbeknownst to everybody." 

Right up to when the emails came to light on Wednesday, Christie continued to insist that nobody in his office or campaign was involved in the closings. He responded to the revelations by canceling a public appearance involving relief for Hurricane Sandy victims. 

He then made a statement, declaring, “I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge.”

He went on, “One thing is clear: This type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.”

Maybe after Kelly is out, Christie will also praise her commitment and dedication and thank her for her service to the people of New Jersey.

On his part, Sokolich has clearly had enough. He sounded still a little amazed that kids had been cheated and people of all ages endangered over his failure to help burnish the bipartisan image that Christie’s people hope will put him in the White House. 

“I’ve been punished not for something I’ve done, but for something I didn’t do,” Sokolich noted on Wednesday.

He then said of those who kept kids waiting on the first day of classes, “This is the behavior of a bully in a schoolyard.”

Sokolich was not accusing Christie himself of being behind it, but that word bully resonates when you think back to when the governor became a YouTube tough guy with a teacher who dared to roll her eyes at him at a town-hall meeting. He now may have a hard time talking about going “Jersey style” without making people think of Fort Lee.  

Meanwhile, Wildstein is fighting a subpoena to appear before state legislators on Thursday. He and Kelly and Baroni and any other trolls who were party to the bridge lane closings should suffer whatever penalties the law allows. And if the law does not allow any, the legislatures should make sure it does in the future.

As for those infamous orange traffic cones, they should be given to the Fort Lee Museum. Kids could see them for years to come and hear the story of the time the trolls closed the lanes leading to the bridge and made terrible mischief on the first day of school.