A political retaliation scandal that erupted around Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Wednesday may be about to get worse.
In September, according to a report from the Bergen Record, paramedics trying to reach an unconscious 91-year-old woman in Fort Lee, N.J., got stuck in a traffic jam that had apparently been created by Christie’s associates as political punishment for the borough’s mayor, a Democrat. Multiple lanes were forced to merge into one, gridlocking traffic for days.
The woman later died at a hospital of cardiac arrest, according to a Sept. 10 letter that EMS coordinator Paul Favia sent to the borough’s mayor.
“Paramedics were delayed due to heavy traffic on Fort Lee Road and had to meet the ambulance en-route to the hospital instead of on the scene,” Favia wrote, the Record reported.
Although Favia did not explicitly blame the woman’s death on the traffic delay -- the paramedics got to her in seven minutes -- it was one of four such delays reported by the coordinator, the newspaper reported.
And given the squall of criticism that barraged Christie’s office Wednesday, the new revelation that lives may have been endangered by political pettiness is likely to deepen a malignant scandal that has put a prime 2016 presidential contender on the defensive.
Controversy has been brewing for months over the September lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, which brought four days of traffic gridlock to Fort Lee, whose mayor did not support Christie’s reelection. Two officials tied to Christie resigned after Democratic lawmakers raised questions over the closures.
But controversy turned to full scandal Wednesday when David Wildstein, Christie’s appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, turned over some of his emails to lawmakers as part of an legislative inquiry.
The messages showed that at least one staffer in Christie’s office and close political allies apparently contrived the closures to create a traffic logjam specifically to punish Fort Lee’s mayor. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff to Christie, wrote in an email to Wildstein on Aug. 13.
Twenty-three 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.
But if the mayor’s distress went unheard in September, it got a national megaphone Wednesday.
“You cannot close down the busiest bridge in the world for political retribution. It’s not something that’s possible,” Sokolich told CNN after the emails were released.
“You have intentionally put people in harm’s way,” the mayor said. “You knew that before you did it. You knew that when Fort Lee called 20, 30, 40 times. You knew that when I kept sending text after text and calling cellphone after cellphone. You always knew that, because we were telling you that that was happening."
Sokolich added, “This is absolutely the lowest level of political venom that you could possibly even make up. It’s a surreal experience at this point. I’ve really got to tell you, I can’t believe it.”
Christie said he couldn’t believe it either. In a written statement, the governor said he had no knowledge of his office’s direct involvement in the bridge lanes’ 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’s statement said.
Bridge, meet troubled waters.
Times staff writer Alana Semuels in New York contributed to this report.