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Monday, September 24, 2018

By Stephanie Akin, The Record

HACKENSACK, N.J. — Two former high-level Christie appointees share almost exclusive blame for the George Washington Bridge lane closures, according to a report commissioned by the Christie administration that concludes New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and current members of his staff were not involved in the closures and other allegations of impropriety that surfaced in the wake of the scandal.

Bridget Kelly, a deputy chief of staff in the governor’s office who was fired in January, and David Wildstein, a Port Authority official who resigned in December, planned and carried out the September lane closings, the 360 page report said.

“It was Wildstein’s ‘idea,'” the report reads, “like so many other ‘crazy’ ones he’d had before that never got off the ground.”

The report also addresses suggestions made by Wildstein that he mentioned the Fort Lee issue to the governor at a public event during the lane closures, but says the governor “recalls no such exchange.” It goes on to say that if the conversation did take place it “would not have registered with the Governor in any event because he knew nothing about this decision in advance and would not have considered another traffic issue at one of the bridges or tunnels to be memorable.”

Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive of the Port Authority who resigned in December, and Bill Stepien, the governor’s former campaign manager, knew of the lane closures but not of any ulterior motives behind them, according to the report. The report also says that Stepien and Kelly were involved in a “personal relationship” that “cooled” a month before the lane closures.

The report also found no merit to a related allegation that Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno and other staffers tried to strong-arm Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer into fast-tracking a real estate development in exchange for Sandy aid.

New York law firm Gibson and Dunn compiled the report, which acknowledges that key people — including Kelly, Zimmer, and Stepien — were not interviewed. However, federal prosecutors investigating the scandal have sat with Zimmer regarding her allegations. The report also was done without interviewing Port Authority Chairman David Samson.

The report, which reportedly cost $1 million to complete, lays out in detail the events leading up to the bridge closings and what it describes as the highly charged atmosphere in the Christie administration as outside pressure built to explain what happened. At one point, it said, Christie held a meeting with inside staffers at which he stood the whole time and spoke loudly.

At another, when he announced his decision to fire Kelly for “lying to him” about the lane closures and severing ties with Stepien, he was, “welling up with tears.”

The lane closures were carried out, at least in part, to target Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, the report says. But it finds no clear motivations.

“The common speculation that this was an act of political retaliation because Mayor Sokolich failed to endorse the Governor for re-election is not established by the evidence that we have seen,” it reads.

But as public pressure mounted, Wildstein and Kelly tried to delete personal emails that showed their planning. Wildstein and Baroni told members of the Christie administration it was a legitimate traffic study, and Wildstein coached Baroni to testify to that effect at a November Assembly hearing on the issue, the report reads.

By December, Wildstein realized that he had to resign, the report reads. While he continued to insist that it was a legitimate traffic study, he told Christie officials it was his idea, the report reads.

He also tried to deflect the blame, telling Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak, who he met for dinner as he was preparing his resignation, that Kelly and Stepien also knew, and that he had the emails to prove it, the report reads. He also said he had mentioned the “issue in Fort Lee” to the governor at a public event during the lane realignment. The governor does not recall the conversation, the report said.

Drewniak then reported Wildstein’s claims to the governor’s office, as did others who had heard rumors about Kelly’s emails, the report read.