Were it not for a couple of personal emails and texts indicating otherwise, the trolls behind the toll lane closures on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge might have gotten away with it.
They might have been able to pass themselves off as just clueless idiots rather than callous thugs.
The thousands of documents released Friday show that Port Authority official David Wildstein went to great lengths to create a cover story.
Wildstein and the top aide to Gov. Chris Christie who set him in motion might actually have been able to pass it all off as a traffic study rather than unconscionable political payback.
Wildstein gave the supposed test the official sounding name “TL24.” He even put together a PowerPoint presentation complete with photos and charts. The title page read:
“Reallocation of Toll Lanes at the GWB.
An EARLY Assessment of the Benefits of the Trials.
September 12, 2013.”
The results were summarized as:
Meaning “to be determined,” which is a pretty good description of how it will play out with regard to Christie’s political future.
The latest documents make the four days of closings seem all the more reckless and reprehensible. Various emails from three days before the closings show that Port Authority supervisors were surprised and alarmed by the plan to close two of the three toll booths that service the Fort Lee entrance.
“A single toll lane operation invites potential disaster,” wrote Jerry Quealch of Port Authority planning and operations. “It seems like we will be punishing all for the sake of a few.”
Emails show that Wildstein sought and received the counsel of Christie’s press secretary, Michael Drewniak. “Need to talk to you soon, in person,” Wildstein wrote on Dec. 3.
He added at the bottom, “Very confused.”
In another email, a puzzled Port Authority supervisor named Daniel Jacobs asked, “What is driving this?”
A Port Authority Police email indicates that Wildstein was personally on hand to witness the effect when the toll booths in question were closed on Sept. 9, not by accident the first day of school. He was undeterred by reports that the resulting traffic was impeding the Fort Lee police and paramedics from responding to emergencies.
“Ft Lee PD and EMS had difficulty responding to: a missing child (later found) and a cardiac arrest,” a Port Authority email reported that first morning.
Among those who called the Port Authority to protest was a woman whose complaint was forwarded in an email by a Port Authority worker to the higher-ups.
“She says that the Port Authority ‘doesn’t care about their customers and they are playing God with people’s jobs.’ Her husband was 40 minutes late to a job that he just got after being out of work for over a year.”
The closings continued for three more days, ending only when the executive director, Patrick Foye, belatedly stepped in.
“I pray that no life has been lost,” Foye said in an email.
Foye also wrote, “I believe this hasty and ill-advised decision violates federal law and the laws of both states.”
The result was an email at 8:04 a.m. on Sept. 13 from Robert Durado, general manger the bridge. He announced the undoing of what should have never been done.
“We have restored all three toll lanes to Fort Lee.”
Wildstein had already prepared his PowerPoint presentation for TL24 and the rest of his cover story. He stuck to the elaborate fiction even after the furor over the closing caused him and Christie’s top Port Authority appointee, Bill Baroni, to resign in December.
Emails show that Wildstein sought and received the counsel of Christie’s press secretary, Michael Drewniak.
“Need to talk to you soon, in person,” Wildstein wrote on Dec. 3.
The two met the following evening.
“Thanks again for all your sound advice last night,” Wildstein emailed him on Dec. 5.
“Thanks for a great dinner,” Drewniak replied.
Drewniak can insist, as does his boss the governor, that at that point he still believed the closing was part of a traffic study.
The cover story fell apart with Thursday’s release of the now-famous emails and texts between Wildstein and Bridget Anne Kelly, who was then Christie’s deputy chief of staff.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote on Aug. 13.
“Got it,” Wildstein replied just a minute later.
Other texts and emails further confirm that the closings were intended as political payback, a power point of a whole other kind, most likely aimed at Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich because he had failed to endorse Christie for reelection.
Some people, including a number of Port Authority supervisors and TV host Rachel Maddow, believe that the real target was Democratic State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, who represents Fort Lee and the surrounding communities.
But nobody at all believes the TL24 cover story anymore.