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Thursday, January 9, 2014 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | NEXT: In New York City’s Transformed Political Era,...
2014-01-09

Will New Jersey’s Traffic Scandal Jam Gov. Christie’s Presidential Hopes for 2016?

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Juan Gonzalez, Democracy Now! co-host and award-winning columnist at the New York Daily News.

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A political controversy surrounding New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has grown into a scandal after it emerged a top aide deliberately ordered traffic delays to exact political revenge. Newly released documents show Christie’s Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly personally ordered the closure of lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge, which connects New Jersey to New York City, to punish the mayor of Fort Lee for declining to endorse Christie’s bid for re-election. In an email to another Christie appointee and high school friend, David Wildstein, Kelly wrote: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." The closures caused massive traffic jams with just one lane operational over a four-day period. In a statement, Christie denied involvement, saying he was "outraged and deeply saddened" by his deputy’s actions. Amy Goodman and Juan González discuss how the scandal could threaten Christie’s expected candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today with news from New Jersey that could have national implications for one of the Republican Party’s rising stars. On Wednesday, The Bergen Record published documents proving top officials to Governor Chris Christie instigated the closure of several access lanes on the George Washington Bridge in September near the town of Fort Lee in order to punish that town’s mayor for not endorsing Christie’s re-election. The lane closures turned the town into a virtual parking lot for four days and delayed emergency workers trying to respond to calls, including one involving an unconscious 91-year-old woman who later died.

In one email, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, wrote, quote, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." The emails were written to David Wildstein, a high school friend of the governor who worked at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge. He responded, quote, "Got it." Prior to his resignation in December, Wildstein was the Port Authority’s director of interstate capital projects.

AMY GOODMAN: Later text messages mocked concerns that school buses filled with students were stuck in gridlock on the first day of school. One unidentified person wrote to Wildstein, "I feel badly about the kids. I guess." Wildstein wrote, quote, "They are the children of Buono voters," referring to Mr. Christie’s opponent for governor, Barbara Buono. Some of the texts about the plan were sent while Kelly was in line to pay respects at a wake. In other text messages, one of Christie’s associates—and emails—refers to the mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, as, quote, "this little Serbian." In fact, he is of Croatian descent.

The scandal could hurt Christie’s chances of running for president in 2016. Until now, Christie’s administration insisted the lane closures were part of a traffic study initiated by the Port Authority. Christie responded to the new revelations in a statement on Wednesday, saying, quote, "What I’ve seen today for the first time is unacceptable. I am outraged and deeply saddened that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge." Governor Christie also canceled his only scheduled appearance on Wednesday. For months, he has downplayed the significance of what happened. This is a clip of Governor Christie responding to questions about the lane closures back in December.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE: I worked the cones, actually. Unbeknownst to everybody, I was actually the guy out there. I was in overalls and a hat, so I wasn’t—but I actually was the guy working the cones out there. You really are not serious with that question.

REPORTER: But what happened? Have you spoken to—

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE: What happened—

REPORTER: —David Wildstein about what happened?

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE: No, I haven’t.

REPORTER: [inaudible]

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE: Listen, just because John Wisniewski is obsessed with this, and Loretta Weinberg, it just shows you they really have nothing to do. I don’t get involved in traffic studies. I don’t get involved in lane closures. I didn’t work the cones—just so we’re clear on that, that was sarcastic.

REPORTER: The idea that this was about no endorsement from the mayor, and it’s just made up out of thin air?

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE: Yeah, listen, I have absolutely no idea.

AMY GOODMAN: Back in November, the New Jersey State Assembly held its first hearing into the lane closures. This is Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni being questioned by New Jersey Assemblywoman Linda Stender.

ASSEMBLYWOMAN LINDA STENDER: I’m sorry, Mr. Baroni, I heard you the first three times that you talked about the issue of whether or not there should be lanes, but that’s not what this hearing is about. This hearing is about the lack of communication and the poor conduct of the Port Authority.

BILL BARONI: But you can’t—that’s actually not [inaudible]

ASSEMBLYWOMAN LINDA STENDER: And you are here trying to cover that up.

BILL BARONI: There’s no—hold on, Assemblywoman. That’s—that’s nonsense.

ASSEMBLYWOMAN LINDA STENDER: What I would like to know is whether or not you have an email trail. You’re trying to tell us that this major—a study that had a major disruption on your major bridge has no paper trail, that there is not a single email—

BILL BARONI: Assemblywoman?

ASSEMBLYWOMAN LINDA STENDER: —that explains how this was done? I—

BILL BARONI: Assemblywoman, I have sat here—

ASSEMBLYWOMAN LINDA STENDER: That defies all logic, and nobody in this room believes that.

AMY GOODMAN: Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni, who was being questioned by New Jersey Assemblywoman Linda Stender, has since resigned. And on Wednesday, New Jersey Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat, who has led the hearings on the lane closures, responded to Governor Christie’s denial that he was aware of the plan to stop traffic.

ASSEMBLYMAN JOHN WISNIEWSKI: I have not seen any emails that have the governor’s name on it, but clearly there’s an email that has the governor’s deputy chief of staff on it. This is an administration that keeps a very tight control over what happens and what comes out of the front office. And so, we’d like to get explanations as to who else in the governor’s office knew about this and what their role was.

AMY GOODMAN: That was New Jersey Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who was holding a hearing today. He has subpoenaed Wildstein to be there, and Wildstein is trying to—has sued to try to prevent his appearance today.

Juan, this is quite a scandal that’s brewing, all starting with the traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, and I think it’s going to continue for quite some time, because obviously there are more hearings coming. I think the governor has now announced he’s going to have a press conference this—today. And the reality is that Christie is in a position where, on the one hand, if he didn’t know that his own top staff were involved in this, that’s a problem, and if he did know, it will become an even bigger—even bigger scandal, just as he’s preparing now, really, to thrust himself into the national picture as a presidential candidate.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, scandal rocks a lot of politics in New Jersey, but all these emails and texts show that this goes right into the governor’s office. And in all of these texts that we were just reading, and emails, there are names that had been actually redacted, and it’s unclear who redacted these names.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right. Well, in the FOIA request, obviously, that The Bergen Record had, it was a decision of someone in the administration. And I guess they could have appealed that, as well, the redaction of the names, but they felt that it was important to get the information out at this time. And, of course, the George Washington Bridge is a huge—

AMY GOODMAN: It’s the most trafficked bridge in the world, it’s believed.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And millions of people use it, especially commuters, on a daily basis. And folks know that there are traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge most of the time anyway, but to have—to tie up in a major town in New Jersey this way and to create all these problems, now—the mayor now has demanded a reimbursement from the state and an apology, but he’s demanded reimbursement for the public safety people that had to work so much overtime during those four days. So this is going to continue as an issue, not only in New Jersey politics, but in national politics now, for several days, I think, if not weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, let’s remember that what was said at the time is there was some kind of traffic study going on. But no emergency personnel, no police, no one was told about this in Fort Lee. And when it was complete—when people kept continually questioning, it turned out there was no such traffic jam. And then you have this—that there was no such study. Then you have this situation where people who were sick, people who were ill, like the 91-year-old woman who later died, emergency workers were seriously delayed in getting to them.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The other problem is that Christie, who is known as a hands-on manager, as someone who pays attention to details, and also as someone who is not reticent to go after his political enemies, this is why I think that there’s so much of a sense that it’s almost beyond belief that the governor would not have some knowledge, if it was at the level of his inner staff. So, we’ll see what happens, but I think it’s definitely a continuing story now.

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