Chris Christie's late-breaking surge is a joke: Why the NJ governor shouldn't be able to outrun Bridgegate

The NJ governor is making a serious play for New Hampshire. Have we not forgotten what happened in his home state?

By Robert Hennelly
Published January 11, 2016 10:57AM (EST)
  (AP/Mary Altaffer)
(AP/Mary Altaffer)

Against some pretty heavy odds, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has clawed his way back. His name is one of the handful that the pundits mention in the 35 seconds they get to handicap next month’s New Hampshire primary. No doubt, his immersion approach of spending more than two thirds of last year out of state, much of it in New Hampshire, is part of it.

But the campaign is not just about the trail, but the news that breaks along the way. Leading up to the last GOP debate in Las Vegas, the Mumbai-style attack in Paris and the San Bernardino massacre brought the issue of terrorism front and center. And Governor Christie came out swinging, reminding viewers of his several years serving as U.S. Attorney in the aftermath of the September 11th attack, just across the Hudson River, where terrorists turned the World Trade Center into a toxic smoldering hole in the ground.

“We need a president who is going to understand what actionable intelligence looks like and act on it,” Christie told the debate audience. “And we need a president and a cabinet who understands that the first and most important priority of the president of the United State is to protect the safety and security of America.”

The question this begs is how can Governor Christie claim to be ready to protect our nation from the likes of ISIS when he was unable to protect the George Washington Bridge from a group of his partisans who used it as their own in September 2013? For days, tens of thousands of unsuspecting men, women and children were caught up in a traffic coronary that officials say posed a substantial risk to public safety, all because the mayor of their town, a Democrat, refused to endorse Christie for re-election.

And as for understanding “actionable intelligence”? It is important to remember that the governor, if he is to be believed that he knew nothing about it before hand, not only failed to recognize “actionable intelligence,” but was himself used for months by the alleged criminal conspirators to advance their cover-up. From September 2013 until January 2014, the governor insisted the GWB traffic gambit was a legitimate traffic study, a script that federal prosecutors now call “a bogus cover story.”

Last May, David Wildstein, a Christie partisan and one of his operatives at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the George Washington Bridge, pled guilty to federal corruption charges for his role in the conspiracy, which he admits aimed to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not backing Christie’s re-election.

Wildstein is cooperating in the prosecution of his alleged co-conspirators Bill Baroni, former deputy executive director of the Port Authority, and Bridget Anne Kelly, a former Christie staffer. The trial is scheduled to start in April. Over the holiday federal prosecutors gave the defense counsel a list, under court seal, of the un-indicted co-conspirators who have yet to be named.

Sprinkled throughout the May 2015 criminal indictments were phrases that suggested this wider circle of conspirators. The charging documents asserted that Wildstein, Baroni and Kelly “knowingly and intentionally conspired and agreed with each other and others.” At the press conference, U.S. Attorney Fishman told reporters he did not expect any additional indictments but did have his version of a “stay tuned” tease when he confirmed that other names might surface in the case as “un-indicted co-conspirators.”

“The indictment does say Bridget Kelly, Bill Baroni, David Wildstein and others” Fishman conceded. “We don’t identify un-indicted co-conspirators in our indictment by name unless they have been previously mentioned in a publicly filed court document, and that is not the case here. There may come a time during the course of the proceedings when we will make a disclosure to the court or defense council who the co-conspirators are, but it is Department of Justice policy not to do it now,” Fishman told reporters back in May.

“To charge someone and to convict someone, we have an obligation to only bring a case in which we have sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone is in fact guilty of a crime. That is not the standard for somebody to be an un-indicted co-conspirator. The standard for an un-indicted co-conspirator can be less than that. It can also be that we don’t plan on charging somebody that was involved,” Fishman said.

What Wildstein, and company did was much bigger than commandeering the George Washington Bridge on the anniversary of September 11th. They involved the Port Authority police who they used to execute their plan, and in the process compromised the agency. The PAPD should have been all consumed securing the GWB, consistently one of the top terror targets in the world. Instead they helped facilitate what federal prosecutors now say was a criminal conspiracy to punish politicians. Senior police officers were aware of the plan to alter traffic before it happened and when rank and file officers raised concerns about the problems it was causing they were told to keep it to themselves. I guess "see something, say something" is only for us civilians.

Back in 2013, in the midst of the lane closures, which crippled his city and ruined the first day of school for Fort Lee’s students, Mayor Sokolich begged in email for Baroni’s intercession. “Adding insult to injury, many members of the public have indicated to me that the Port Authority officers are advising commuters in response to their complaints that this recent traffic debacle is the result of a decision that I as the Mayor made,” Sokolich wrote.

In the first day of the mega jam, a Port Authority community relations official told Wildstein that horrendous traffic was effecting the ability of local police to handle a missing child case and for EMS to handle a cardiac arrest call. In a text on the second day, September 10, Kelly expressed remorse for the impact on the kids caught up in the traffic nightmare. Wildstein responded, “they are the children of Buono voters,” that would be former Senator Barbara Buono, Christie’s 2013 opponent who tried to make an issue of Bridgegate with a media still largely enamored of Christie.

In November of 2013, Baroni went so far as to testify before the state legislative panel investigating Bridgegate that the idea for the traffic study had originated with Port Authority PBA President Paul Nunziato. Back in 2014 the New York Times reported that Nunziatio and Wildstein met regularly from 2012, leading up to when Nunziato delivered the endorsement from his 1,500 member for Christie’s re-election. (Under Christie’s tutelage the ranks of the Port Authority police grew from 1,500 to 2,000 by March 2014.)

When Nunziato faced reporters after a December 2014 Port Authority commissioners meeting he reiterated that it was he who raised the idea of having the bi-state agency conduct a GWB Fort Lee traffic study. A month earlier the Port Authority PBA President said in a press statement that speculation that politics were behind the GWB lane closures was like speculating on the possible location of Jimmy Hoffa’s body.

Nunziato’s lawyer Charles J. Sciarra, told The New York Times his client had nothing to do with the closures. “My client was trying to be supportive of people who were supportive of his union; he never intended to mislead,” he said.

A source close to the case says several Port Authority officers will be testifying at the Bridgegate trial in April.

For Senate Majority leader Loretta Weinberg, who was also co-chair of the panel that investigated Bridgegate, the existence of this sealed list of uncharged Bridgegate co-conspirators is disquieting. “I am concerned in terms of the whole issue that we don’t know the whole story,” says Weinberg. “There is this group of co-conspirators who could be public employees or could be Port Authority police officers. We just don’t know.”

Robert Hennelly

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