A Bridge to Scandal: Behind the Fort Lee Ruse

Mr. Sokolich, however, was noncommittal. “I said, ‘Yes, I’ll consider it, because I’ll consider anything,’ ” he recalled.

He chewed it over with local council members and two objections arose: It would be rude to State Senator Barbara Buono, the Democratic candidate for governor, and they were miffed at Mr. Christie for his decision to spend millions of dollars to hold a special election to fill New Jersey’s vacant United States Senate seat three weeks before Election Day.

And so the mayor let the request go. “I never called and said no, I never called and said yes,” said Mr. Sokolich, who would not name the official who had reached out to him. “I think they interpreted my response to that conversation to be a no.”

Not long afterward, on Sept. 9, a police commander at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Capt. Darcy Licorish, led a crew that set up a long, curving line of traffic cones at Fort Lee’s southern approach to the upper level of the George Washington Bridge. The cones funneled drivers normally served by three tollbooths into just one. Other drivers advanced through the two lanes, so tantalizingly close but suddenly off limits. Backups began, and soon much of Fort Lee’s three square miles became a montage of idling cars and collective exasperation.

Workers were hours late to their jobs. Emergency vehicles were slowed. And the police were baffled. So was Mr. Sokolich. Who ordered this? It was the first day of school, the anniversary of Sept. 11 was two days away and there was colossal gridlock outside the world’s busiest bridge.

So began four strange days in Fort Lee. They might have wound up as a negligible entry in the lengthy ledgers of commuter inconvenience. Yet the traffic jam at the bridge was actually the tangible face of a farce sloppily written inside the government corridors of Trenton, featuring spiteful characters from Mr. Christie’s staff and the patronage-laden Port Authority.

The release last week of messages between conspiring government officials exposed a back story of a political ruse and cover-up. A chronicle of what happened, based on a review of documents and numerous interviews, shows how that ruse impinged on unsuspecting lives and ricocheted between two states before metamorphosing into a national scandal that has shaken Mr. Christie’s administration. There have been resignations, at least one high-profile firing, and incalculable damage to the governor’s reputation and national aspirations.

In the months after the cones came down, bizarre scenes bumped into one another: the chief characters huddling on the bridge for an evening fire drill as if nothing had happened; Mr. Christie summoning his top aides and giving them an hour to own up to any involvement; one of the scheme’s presumed architects soliciting rudimentary bridge facts from a co-conspirator days before appearing before a legislative committee to deliver the cover story.

Damning Emails

It remains unclear who hatched the bridge idea and how many signed on, but what is known is that on Aug. 13, Bridget Anne Kelly, Mr. Christie’s deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, sent an email from her personal account to David Wildstein, who was a high school friend of Mr. Christie’s and an ally of the governor’s at the Port Authority, which runs the George Washington Bridge. The email said: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

A minute later, Mr. Wildstein responded: “Got it.”

The clipped nature of the exchange strongly suggests that the idea had some history.

It made sense that they selected traffic. Northern New Jersey is infamous for its traffic jams. In addition, Mayor Sokolich had written to Bill Baroni, the Port Authority’s deputy executive director and a Christie appointee, in late 2010 seeking help in relieving congestion caused by bridge spillover. The mayor’s soft spot was well known.

On Aug. 28, Mr. Wildstein, the authority’s director of interstate capital projects, exchanged emails with traffic engineers about closing lanes in Fort Lee. Then, on Sept. 6, he contacted Robert Durando, the general manager of the bridge, and his supervisor, Cedrick Fulton, the director of tunnels, bridges and terminals, and ordered two of the lanes reallocated the following Monday as a “test.” Mr. Wildstein shrugged off their warnings of likely havoc. Mr. Fulton later testified that he had told Mr. Wildstein, “This will not end well.”

On Sept. 9, Captain Licorish and his crew went to work. Cars stopped moving. Mr. Wildstein showed up at 6 a.m. to watch it unfold. Contacted last week, Mr. Licorish declined to comment.

Colossal Gridlock

Christian Carrillo is a seasoned taxi driver in Fort Lee; he has been delayed by car crashes, construction and the bottlenecks that are quintessential New Jersey. But even by his benchmarks, the immobility in the streets on that morning stood out.

“Sometimes it moves like a snail, but this time it wasn’t even doing that,” he said. “It was wall-to-wall cars going nowhere in rush-hour traffic the whole day.” His foot cramped. His neck ached. He was losing money.

Shortly after 7 a.m., Mr. Sokolich got a call at home from Chief Keith M. Bendul of the Fort Lee police, alerting him to the frightful congestion. Both men tried repeatedly and fruitlessly to get answers from the Port Authority.

Mr. Bendul said he called Port Authority officials with whom he had decades-long relationships and could not find out anything. He contacted only those from the New Jersey side of the bifurcated operation, no one from the New York side.

Mr. Sokolich called Mr. Baroni, and told an aide that he faced an “urgent safety matter.” That message was conveyed to Mr. Wildstein, who sent it to Ms. Kelly. She asked Mr. Wildstein if Mr. Baroni had returned the mayor’s call. “Radio silence,” Mr. Wildstein responded.

Traffic piled up two miles from the bridge. Drivers accustomed to half-hour commutes into New York needed two, three, four hours. School buses were late. Mr. Bendul removed police officers from administrative tasks and dispatched them to direct traffic.

Ila Kasofsky, a Fort Lee real estate agent and a councilwoman, said a colleague could not get to New York to be with her husband while he underwent a stem cell transplant. A man unemployed for a year was 40 minutes late for his first day at a new job.

The impact wound deeper into the state. Paul Saxton, the interim superintendent of schools in Fort Lee, had arisen at 5:30 for the lengthy drive from Waretown to his office two blocks from the bridge. The last mile and a half took 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, the police were hunting for a missing 4-year-old — who was subsequently found — and had to deal with a car that had hit a building.

Paul E. Favia, the Fort Lee emergency medical services coordinator, wrote to the mayor about delays in response time.

He said it took him seven minutes to reach a car accident with four people hurt, when it should have taken him under four, and he needed to jump a curb to get there.

Christie allies and staff members wise to the stunt plainly found it all highly amusing.

A text message from Mr. Sokolich to Mr. Baroni pleading for help found its way to Mr. Wildstein, who forwarded it on to someone whose name was redacted in the released messages. That person replied, “Is it wrong that I’m smiling?”

Mr. Wildstein wrote back, “No.”

Retaliation Speculation

Rumors swirled right away that the lane closings might have been a dart aimed at Mr. Sokolich. Was he being punished for not endorsing Mr. Christie? Or might it be because he opposed the latest toll increase? Or was it something more far-fetched?

Mr. Sokolich heard the rumors, but discounted them as fanciful. His reasoning was simple. On the totem pole of state politics, even he saw himself near the bottom.

The orange cones still stood the next morning, by which point the Port Authority reported dozens of voice mail messages and emails denouncing the altered traffic patterns. They were still there the next day, the anniversary of Sept. 11. The bridge itself, of course, is a potential terrorist target.

Mr. Sokolich said his blood pressure rose “two ticks each day” the lanes were closed, adding, “It went up twice that on Sept. 11.”

The police chief remembered a 20-page response plan that had been developed by the Fort Lee police and the Port Authority in the wake of the Sept. 11 attack. He said that it imagined myriad scenarios, but not that the Port Authority itself would intentionally close bridge lanes for no apparent reason.

The cones remained on Thursday. Commuters and residents began awakening much earlier to belt themselves into their cars.

An increasingly agitated Mr. Sokolich wrote to Mr. Baroni to complain. Mr. Baroni forwarded the complaint to Mr. Wildstein, who in turn shared it with Bill Stepien, Mr. Christie’s campaign manager, and Ms. Kelly.

As a news story, the bridge backup seemed minor. After all, if you were going to write about traffic jams in New Jersey you might as well also report on someone getting a cold sore or the fact that a man had his driveway paved.

But at The Record newspaper in Bergen County, the publisher heard from a friend that it was taking hours to cross the bridge, a tidbit that found its way to John Cichowski, who writes the paper’s “Road Warrior” column. His first thought was, “Oh gosh, the George Washington Bridge is tied up every day.” On the other hand, he reasoned, “I tend to follow up the dumbest things.”

He poked around, found that delays had persisted all week and wrote a column that was published on Friday, Sept. 13. He quoted Mr. Sokolich as saying: “Please print this. I’m always proud and pleased with this administration even though I didn’t support the toll increases. So I don’t understand the basis for this. Is there a punitive overtone here? Is there something we should have done?”

The column also included a terse statement from a Port Authority spokesman that the agency was reviewing safety patterns at the bridge to make sure toll lanes were properly placed.

The evening before, Patrick J. Foye, the executive director of the Port Authority and an appointee of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, had noticed the inquiries from Mr. Cichowski on an internal sheet recording calls from the news media. They led him on Friday morning to find out from bridge officials about the closed lanes. In a blistering memo to agency officials, Mr. Foye suggested the “ill-advised” lane closings were dangerous and violated federal and state law. He ordered them reopened and vowed, “I will get to the bottom of this abusive decision.”

At 8:15 that morning, after many rush-hour commuters were subjected to one final miserable trip, the cones were taken up.

When Mr. Wildstein heard this, he sent an email to Ms. Kelly saying that “we are appropriately going nuts” that the New York side of the Port Authority had overridden New Jersey. He added that David Samson, the authority’s chairman and a Christie appointee, would help them retaliate.

Mr. Christie has denied that Mr. Samson knew of the scheme; Mr. Samson has not commented publicly. But after the lanes reopened, emails suggested he was more troubled about who was feeding information to the news media than about why the closings happened.

After the cones were removed, a Port Authority spokesman said that a weeklong study of traffic safety patterns had been undertaken and that officials would “now review those results and determine the best traffic patterns.”

Cover-Up Collapses

By early October, calls for investigations were being advanced by New Jersey state legislators, particularly Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski and State Senator Loretta Weinberg, both Democrats.

Ms. Weinberg told reporters that part of her found it implausible that politics were involved. “And then there was part of me,” she added, “that pictured a whole bunch of frat-boy types sitting in their office one night having a beer and a pizza. ‘Hmm. Let’s get even with that, you know, whoever.’ ”

A peculiar scene played out on the evening of Oct. 9. Standing together on the shuttered lower roadway of the bridge were Mr. Baroni, Mr. Wildstein, Mr. Fulton, Mr. Durando and Mr. Foye — all key players in the twisted episode. Along with dozens of local police and fire officials, they watched as emergency responders fought a simulated fire as part of a drill. They acted, according to someone familiar with the event, as if nothing whatsoever had happened

In late November, hearings began before the Assembly Transportation Committee. On Nov. 25, Mr. Baroni was set to testify, though not under oath. In the days leading up to his appearance, he scrambled to learn elementary facts about the bridge. He texted Mr. Wildstein to find out the number of lanes on the upper level. “Will take gw bridge to work,” Mr. Wildstein texted back.

Pointing to bridge diagrams and rattling off statistics, Mr. Baroni told committee members that the lanes had been closed for the traffic study. Afterward, he was keen to know how Mr. Christie’s office graded his performance.

“Trenton feedback?” he texted Mr. Wildstein.

“Good,” Mr. Wildstein texted back.

“Just good?” he replied, and cursed.

Mr. Wildstein comforted him that Ms. Kelly and another Christie aide were “VERY happy,” as was Mr. Christie’s chief counsel, Charles McKenna.

Throughout all of this, Mr. Christie and his top spokesman, Michael Drewniak, repeatedly said the governor did not bother with trivial traffic decisions. On Dec. 2, Mr. Christie pilloried Democrats for playing politics. “I moved the cones, actually, unbeknownst to everybody,” he said with sarcasm.

The fallout began on Dec. 6, when Mr. Wildstein submitted his resignation from the Port Authority, explaining it as something planned but hastened by the “distraction” of the “Fort Lee issue.”

The cover story itself, though, began to unravel once Mr. Foye and bridge officials testified on Dec. 9. Mr. Foye said he knew of no bridge study. The other officials portrayed the notion as senseless. They said they were given three days’ notice to close the lanes, something that normally would involve years of planning. They were instructed not to tell anyone, including Fort Lee officials and Mr. Foye, they said, and complied out of fear of reprisals.

On the day of the hearings, The Wall Street Journal reported, Mr. Christie had called Mr. Cuomo to complain that Mr. Foye was pushing too hard to get to the bottom of the closings. Mr. Christie denied he had called Mr. Cuomo. The next day, the office of the Port Authority’s inspector general opened an investigation into the closings.

On Dec. 13, Mr. Baroni quit. Before going out to a news conference where the resignation would be announced, Mr. Christie decided, finally, to question his aides about whether they had any culpability. He gathered most of his senior staff inside his State House office and issued an ultimatum: They had an hour to confess any involvement with what had happened at the bridge or knowledge of who was behind it. None did. At the news conference, he praised Mr. Baroni for his service. He said no members of his staff had anything to do with the lane closings and the whole matter had been “sensationalized.”

On Wednesday, when emails emerged that had been subpoenaed by the Assembly, the truth became evident: This was always rank political payback.

The next day, Mr. Christie said he had been deceived and was “humiliated.” He fired Ms. Kelly, whom he called “stupid,” and severed ties with Mr. Stepien, his former campaign manager. The United States attorney for New Jersey began a preliminary inquiry. Then, Governor Christie traveled to Fort Lee to apologize to Mayor Sokolich. His arrival, accompanied by an onslaught of reporters and photographers, snarled traffic once again in the borough.

On Friday, the mayor relaxed in his unassuming law office, his golden retriever slumbering nearby. He told how at his meeting with Mr. Christie the day before he had not requested anything from the governor beyond a simple apology to the people of Fort Lee.

He said he does not like to ask for things.

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