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.
The governor held a meeting on Dec. 12 demanding answers from his staff and had asked Kelly and Stepien about the issue directly, the report said. Both denied any involvement, and Kelly told the governor’s chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd, she had searched her emails, even showing him a couple, the report read.
“But Kelly was nevertheless panicked by what she considered to be O’Dowd’s ‘grilling,'” the report read. “She called her staffer, Christina Renna, that same night to make a desperate request: delete the email that Kelly sent to Renna on Sept. 12, 2013, where Kelly, upon learning Mayor Sokolich was “extremely upset,” responded: ‘Good.'”
Renna, who has also since resigned, preserved a copy of the email, the report said.
During a press conference Thursday, Randy Mastro, the lead attorney for Gibson Dunn, said that the motivation remains unclear.
“David Wildstein is the person who originated this idea and orchestrated it,” Mastro said. “They had an ulterior motive for implementing that decision. We are not able to answer what that ulterior motive was.”
Throughout the report, Governor Christie is consistently portrayed as being unaware of what his staff was doing regarding the lane closures and when he did find out, the report claims, he acted decisively. The language in the report is also derisive of those who are found to be at fault, particularly Wildstein and Kelly, who are portrayed as rogue political operatives acting independently. The report also questions Kelly’s ability to run the office she headed, calling her “inexperienced.”
Mastro, at the press event in Manhattan, was questioned on the impartiality of the report.
“It’s a search for the truth, and we believe we have gotten to the truth,” he said. “We will be judged at the end of the day by whether we got this right, we intended to get it right, we believe we got it right. As to the most important questions, we believe we got it right.”
The report concludes with several recommendations. They include:
- Restricting the use of personal email for official business.
- Eliminating the office that Kelly headed, called the Intergovernmental Affairs Office, which the report says has been tainted by the scandal.
- Creating and ombudsman who would be responsible for receiving and responding to complaints within the governor’s office and periodically issuing public reports.
- Appointing an ethics officer to oversee ethics conflicts in the governor’s office and train staff members.
- Reorganizing leadership structure of Port Authority to ensure its independence and eliminate divisions between New York and New Jersey that were revealed by the controversy.
AFP Photo/Eric Thayer