Much has already been made of the indictments last week of three former Chris Christie allies on federal corruption charges. However, one thing that has thus far not gotten sufficient recognition, whether in the media or in the indictment itself, is that the criminal conspiracy to engineer a major traffic jam as political payback depended on causing entirely avoidable chaos on one of the nation’s top terrorist targets, not just on any day, but on the anniversary of September 11.
So far the focus on the indictments of Bill Baroni and Bridget Kelly, as well the guilty plea of David Wildstein, has zeroed in on the their alleged plot to wreak havoc for Fort Lee parents and students on their first day of school. In a touch of irony, both Wildstein and Baroni were with Governor Christie at the solemn memorial service at the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan on September 11, 2013, even as their diabolical scheme was in it’s third day.
Millions of people use the Port Authority's tunnels, bridges and airports and, as we saw in the horrific events of September 11, confidence in the legitimacy in the righteous authority of the police is critical to getting compliance from the public in what can be life-or-death situations, in which there is no time to wonder if a police command has ulterior motives.
Eugene O'Donnell is a former police officer and prosecutor who teaches police science at John Jay College. He says all that a police agency has, short of force, is the public perception that it is impartial and non-partisan. "Police are unique public employees in that they have a quasi-judicial role. [They] have to have a non-political approach to maintain the public's confidence," O'Donnell says.
When asked if it should be considered an aggravating factor that the pro-Christie plotters used one of the nation’s top terror targets, the George Washington Bridge, which is protected by the Port Authority police, on the anniversary of September 11, when the risk of an actual attack was elevated, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said, “It is not actually an element of any of the crimes that are charged.”
In reviewing the testimony and evidence gathered by the New Jersey’s legislature’s Select Committee on Investigation, the role of the Port Authority police is described in great detail, both in the planning of the closures, and their execution. According to Port Authority Police Lt. Chip Michaels, David Wildstein, the former Port Authority official who pled guilty to corruption charges on Friday, asked Michaels in the first week of September 2013 what impact the closures of the lanes in question would have on traffic. Michaels told the legislature’s investigators that he told Wildstein it would be a “fucking disaster.”
Days before the closures went into effect, the top brass at the Port Authority’s Police Department were clued in on the new traffic pattern and let it all play out as they were instructed. (See something, say absolutely nothing.) On the first day of the closures, Wildstein, whose visit was expected, was chauffeured around by Michaels to inspect the damage wrought by the lane closures first hand. As part of the plot to maximize the pain inflicted on the community of Fort Lee, the plotters allegedly insured there was no advance warning to the Fort Lee Police, a major deviation from past Port Authority practice of offering local first responders a heads up.
Adding insult to injury, top Fort Lee Police brass heard directly at the time from Port Authority officers that the lane closures were “somehow connected to a decision Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich had made", a rational the PAPD officers also shared with angry motorists. That campaign of making Sokolich the fall guy -- allegedly hatched by the Wildstein, Baroni, Kelly trio, with the help of the PAPD comments to motorists -- worked like a charm. It quickly showed up in constituent complaints directed to the Mayor with one resident writing, “The Port Authority Police say contact the Mayor. So I am. Is this your legacy you want to leave behind? The Mayor that wrecked Fort Lee?”
On the second day of the ordeal, as traffic conditions worsened, rank-and-file Port Authority police officers on the scene radioed for permission to reopen the lanes citing “hazardous conditions,” but were told to shut up by their superiors, according to interviews conducted by the New Jersey Legislature’s Select Committee on Investigations. They were also instructed to not refer to the unfolding events over their PAPD radios
None of these details are in the papers filed Friday by federal prosecutors. Wildstein’s on-site visit the first day of the closures is referenced, but not that it was a high-ranking Port Authority police officer who was driving him around. One new detail was disclosed regarding an alleged effort by Baroni to enlist Port Authority police officers assistance in November of 2013 to falsely corroborate that it was the PAPD that had suggested the need for a traffic study. Prosecutors say the officers declined to do so.
The federal Bridgegate charging documents go into some detail on how “unwitting” Port Authority staffers were used by the conspirators. Did that include the police department? Shouldn’t the public get an answer to that question?
“The fact that [the land closures] went down for four days says all you need to know about the status of the Port Authority’s security,” says Nick Casale former NYPD detective and deputy director of Security for Counter-Terrorism at the MTA. As Casale sees it, the PAPD’s leadership needed to, but didn't, push back to avoid being sucked into what federal prosecutors say was a criminal conspiracy that ripped off the very agency the Department was supposed to protect. “Why didn’t the police and security brass get involved? Was it that they knew it was just political terrorism and not Islamic terrorism?” At the very least they were used as props, at the very worst they were in on it.
Since September 11, the Port Authority has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on security. Yet high ranking political appointees could just use the George Washington Bridge to create havoc, and use the Port Authority’s police force to help them do it. Whether it was unwitting, in concert, or a mix of both, the fact that political appointees could manipulate the PAPD for four days in a row needs to be looked at by somebody in law enforcement. From its original creation in 1921, the Port Authority was supposed to transcend partisan and provincial politics; now it is entirely captive to it.
Reading the indictments and the supporting materials it sounds as if they were drafted in those halcyon pre-9/11 days before we were told to say something if we saw something. But perhaps the War on Terror is over for the political prankster class, even as the rest of us keep taking off our belts and shoes just to get on an airplane. What if, heaven forbid, on one of those September days during the closures, there had actually been a terror attack?
As part of the Bridgegate indictments, Federal prosecutors have to prove that the three identified conspirators caused the misappropriation of at least $5,000 in property belonging to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in their scheme to use lane closures to punish Sokolich for not endorsing the re-election of Governor Chris Christie.
In fact, part of how the DOJ established jurisdiction in this case is by virtue of a law passed by Congress that makes it a crime for anyone to rip off any local or state agency or authority if it gets at least $10,000 in grants from the Federal government. In their theory of the case, prosecutors are factoring in costs related to the Port Authority staff’s time collecting data for the phony traffic study and the costs for the bogus press releases put out by the bi-state agency as part of the criminal cover-up of the initial scheme.
According to U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, as part of Wildstein's guilty plea, he admitted to costing the Port Authority between $10,000 to $30,000, the amount spent to cover the costs of the phony traffic study and the criminal cover-up that followed. The dollar value of that theft from the Port Authority is important because, as Fishman explained to reporters last week, it impacts “guideline calculations” for Wildstein's sentencing. At the press conference on Friday, Fishman said that based on advisory guidelines, Wildstein could face 21 to 27 months in jail. No doubt the higher the value of the misappropriation, the longer time could be served.
So what price do prosecutors place on the commandeering of the legitimacy of the Port Authority police force in the alleged criminal conspiracy?