Bridge-gate scandal nips at Christie’s heels: Moran

December 15, 2013

Tom Moran/ The Star-Ledger By Tom Moran/ The Star-Ledger

on December 15, 2013 at 7:30 AM, updated December 15, 2013 at 7:33 AM

As scandals go, the manufactured traffic nightmare at the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee is a mouse, not a lion. No one stole money. No one was hurt. And there was no sex.
But it does have the key ingredient that breathes life into any scandal: a sloppy attempt by the key players to cover their tracks. Gov. Chris Christie’s top lieutenants at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey knew their behavior could not be justified.

Why else would they hide this from their boss, Patrick Foye, the Port Authority’s executive director?

Why would they force the crew that carried out the plan to hide it from others in the agency?

Why would they keep it secret from the mayor of Fort Lee, and even his police and ambulance crews?

And when the story broke, and Foye wrote his furious e-mail ordering an immediate halt to the mischief, why would Bill Baroni, the governor’s point man, fire off a return e-mail to Foye with this desperate demand:

“I am on my way to the office to discuss. There can be no public discourse.”

At that moment, drivers in Fort Lee were enduring their fifth day of gridlock that left them stranded for up to four hours, thanks to the actions of the governor’s top appointees at the Port Authority, who had shut down two of Fort Lee’s three access lanes to the bridge.

It was a crazy move. It paralyzed the town for days. It was pure luck that an ambulance with a bleeding patient didn’t get caught up in this net. And professional traffic engineers say it was entirely unnecessary, since it’s easy to study these impacts by feeding traffic data into computer programs.

The big mystery is the motive. The Democratic mayor of Fort Lee wrote a protest letter suggesting it was political revenge against him after he had refused a request to endorse the governor.
Democrats are pushing that theory in hopes of taking some of the shine off Christie before the 2016 presidential campaign kicks off. The Democratic National Committee released a 2-minute video on Friday packed with sinister atmospherics.

“I believe this was ordered as an act of political retaliation,” says Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen). “We have been given no rational reason for their having done this.”

There is no direct evidence to back that claim. But it would explain why the “study” was launched not by the agency’s traffic engineers but by David Wildstein, the governor’s childhood friend who describes himself as the governor’s enforcer at the Port Authority. It would also explain why Wildstein and Baroni were so keen to keep the project secret.

Baroni has some history as a political henchman for the governor. Bill Lavin, an officer with the state’s largest firefighter union, once criticized the governor on a radio show and was surprised to get a call from Baroni shortly afterward.

According to Lavin, Baroni gave him a message from the governor, and said he was told to use these exact words: “Go f--- yourself!” Asked about the exchange, Baroni neither confirmed nor denied it.
On Friday, the governor stuck to the story that Baroni told during his testimony before the Assembly: It was a traffic study.

He denied that he or his political team played any role. He said he asked his senior staff to come forward if they had any such information, and that none did, including campaign manager David Stepien.

“He assured me,” the governor said.
This could wind up as a stalemate, with no proof on either side. If the governor’s people were behind this, it’s not likely they would be stupid enough to put it in writing. And it’s clear they have circled the wagons around the idea that this was an innocent traffic study.

But this is worth investigating. If the governor’s team was involved, this is an egregious misuse of public resources for political gain. Foye believes that state and federal laws were broken. The Port Authority’s inspector general has launched an investigation.

And Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), chairman of the transportation committee, is winning high marks for conducting a careful and thorough investigation. He’s likely to subpoena Wildstein to testify soon, and may even call Baroni back to testify under oath.

Wisniewski has been partially vindicated already. He has long criticized the Port Authority as dysfunctional, and his hearings have coughed up convincing evidence of that.
The saddest moment in Monday’s hearing came when the poor guy who manages the bridge, Robert Durando, was asked if he feared that objecting to this crazy scheme would get him fired.
He dodged. Wisniewski pressed him to answer. And Durando was paralyzed for a good 20 seconds, shaking his head and sighing, afraid to answer, and afraid not to.
“I didn’t want to tempt fate,” he finally squeaked out.

“I thought he was going to cry,” Wisniewski says. “I felt bad that these guys have to work under these conditions.”

So far, the wreckage can be measured in two jobs: Baroni “resigned” on Friday. The governor says Baroni was scheduled to step down in a few weeks anyway. Believe that if you want. Baroni is not talking, which is probably a good career move at this stage.

Wildstein is gone, too, having announced his resignation earlier in the week. But he will likely be sitting at the witness table soon, under oath, facing questions from a hostile panel of Democrats who clearly don’t believe his story.

So stayed tuned. Bridge-gate may wind up as a stalemate. But for now, there is blood in the water. And questions that need answers.