NEW YORK — A top staffer for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was involved in a move to temporarily close lanes of the George Washington Bridge as political payback, recently released emails suggest, a move that enmeshes the Republican governor in a high-profile controversy as he considers a potential run for the presidency in 2016.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey closed all but one lane of the bridge in September, effectively gridlocking a New Jersey town whose mayor did not support Christie's reelection.
"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," wrote Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff to Christie, in an email on Aug. 13 to David Wildstein, Christie's appointee at the Port Authority. Wildstein resigned from the Port Authority in December after news of the scandal broke.
The controversy will probably deepen, as the head of Fort Lee's emergency medical services department reported that lane closures on the bridge delayed emergency responders during four calls, according to a letter sent to the mayor Sept. 10, which was obtained by the Record newspaper in New Jersey.
In one of those calls, traffic delayed paramedics trying to get to an unconscious 91-year-old woman who later died at the hospital, according to EMS coordinator Paul Favia, who did not explicitly say whether her death was caused by the delays.
Christie's office has said that the lane closures, which caused problems for Fort Lee, just across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan, were part of a traffic study. The governor said in a statement Tuesday that he had no knowledge of his office's direct involvement in the bridge closure, which he called "unacceptable."
"I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge," Christie said.
The 23 pages of emails among Wildstein, Kelly and Bill Baroni, a Port Authority deputy who has also resigned, indicate that the Port Authority purposely ignored calls from Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich and gloated over his distress. The emails were released in response to a subpoena ahead of a hearing in which Wildstein will testify before a panel of state lawmakers.
"Radio silence," Wildstein wrote when Kelly asked if he had returned an "urgent" call from Sokolich. "His name comes right after Mayor Fulop," he wrote, referring to Steven Fulop, mayor of Jersey City, who had previously said Christie retaliated against him.
The emails indicate that Sokolich texted Baroni that four traffic lanes were merging into one toll booth, preventing kids from getting to school.
"Help please," Sokolich wrote. "It's maddening."
"Is it wrong that I am smiling?" one of the officials wrote to another. (It is unclear which official wrote this, since parts of the email are redacted.)
"They are the children of Buono voters," another replied, referring to state Sen. Barbara Buono, Christie's Democratic opponent in last year's gubernatorial election.
Christie won 60% of the vote in November, cruising to an easy victory that helped make him a front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination. But these emails could throw a wrench into that plan: They provide more ammunition for Christie's political opponents by playing to prior criticisms of the governor as a bully. (He has contributed to that characterization with blunt smack-downs of critics at political events and news conferences.)
The Democratic National Committee has already seized on the issue, creating an online video reminding voters that Wildstein and Christie were high school friends, and that the controversy had been going on for 121 days with few answers.
"The Christie administration's explanation of the bridge scandal: incomplete," the video concludes.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times