By Melissa Hayes, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)
TRENTON, N.J. — The Port Authority police officer whose involvement in the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge has come under question in recent days, suggested rerouting local traffic toward the closures on the first day of the gridlock in September, according to a document released Tuesday.
Port Authority Police Lt. Thomas “Chip” Michaels sent a text message to Fort Lee (N.J.) Police Chief Keith Bendul in which he proposed sending westbound traffic from Hudson Terrace to Center Avenue. In effect, that move would have forced traffic to pass by the lane closures to reach Center Avenue, which provides another access to the bridge. He ended the message with, “Papd covers lemoine ave. Thoughts?”
Bendul responded, “Can’t center ave gridlocked. Suggestion open up 3 toll lanes,” according to the document The Record received Tuesday through an Open Public Records Act request.
The closures cost the region $100,000 in economic activity, according to a report prepared by the Port Authority and obtained by The Record on Tuesday.
Michaels also exchanged texts with David Wildstein, a former Port Authority official appointed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who carried out the lane closures creating traffic jams for parts of five days.
The new document comes after a lawmaker leading the legislative inquiry into the traffic jams said the committee may need to call Michaels to answer questions.
The Democratic leaders of the New Jersey Select Committee on Investigation on Tuesday said they plan to continue pursuing documents from Bill Stepien, Christie’s two-time campaign manager, and Bridget Anne Kelly, the deputy chief of staff Christie fired after she sent the now infamous email to Wildstein, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Kelly and Stepien have invoked their constitutional right to protect themselves against self-incrimination.
The legislative panel voted along party lines last week to find that argument “invalid” and deemed the documents Stepien and Kelly possess as critical to their investigation.
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) who heads the committee with Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) said the text message between Michaels and the Fort Lee police chief raises additional questions about Michaels’ involvement and knowledge of the lane closures.
“These are all questions that need to be answered when these people appear before our committee,” she said.
Weinberg said she wasn’t sure yet if the committee would subpoena Michaels, but called him a “person of interest” who could potentially “fill in some gaps of what took place here.”
Michaels’ exchange with Wildstein, and an email in which Wildstein says he’s taking a ride to view the traffic with Michaels, was the focus of an MSNBC report over the weekend.
Michaels and his brother Jeff, a lobbyist, grew up in Livingston with Christie, but a spokesman for the governor said Monday that Christie hasn’t spoken to the brothers about the lane closures.
Wisniewski said that he and Weinberg sent a letter to Pat Foye, executive director of the Port Authority who has called for an internal review of the Port Authority Police Department’s involvement in the lane closures. Wisniewski said the letter asks Foye to share any information his investigation uncovers with the committee.
Weinberg said the committee also plans to interview Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich. The mayor declined to comment Tuesday, but has previously said he would cooperate with the legislative investigation and the federal inquiry being carried out by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Sokolich declined to respond to a request from Randy Mastro, the former federal prosecutor Christie hired to conduct an internal investigation of his office after he fired Kelly.
In a letter to the committee Tuesday, Stepien’s lawyer, Kevin Marino, called the legislative investigation “politically charged” and said if the committee does not withdraw its subpoena it should let a judge decide the matter. He asked the committee to explain why it believes Stepien cannot invoke his Fifth Amendment right.
Wisniewski and Weinberg said they received the letter and are reviewing it.
Kelly’s attorney, Michael Critchley, said his position on the subpoena has not changed since he notified the committee Feb. 3 that Kelly would not be providing documents.
“I believe the subpoena, as drawn, is legally defective and accordingly I will not be turning over any documents requested by the subpoena,” he said Tuesday.
The Democratic-controlled panel authorized its attorney last week “to take all necessary steps” — including legal action — to enforce the initial subpoenas sent Jan. 27 and the amended subpoenas from Feb. 4.
Wisniewski, an attorney, declined to say what steps the committee would take next to obtain the documents.
The panel has sought documents from Port Authority officials, members of Christie’s campaign, the governor’s office and the state Republican Party.
Christie fired Kelly last month, saying she had lied by telling him she had no knowledge of the lane closures. The governor also cut ties with Stepien, one of his closest political advisers, after Stepien called Sokolich an “idiot” in an email. As campaign manager, it was Stepien who coordinated efforts to secure Democratic endorsements for the Republican governor’s re-election bid last year. Christie, who easily won a second term, gained the support of 61 elected Democrats, but the Fort Lee mayor was not one of them. Democrats allege the lane closures were retribution against the mayor for failing to endorse Christie.
Photo: Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr