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“Do You Know Me Now?”: Ex-Port Authority Official Says ‘Evidence Exists’ Christie Knew About Lane Closings

The former Port Authority official who personally oversaw the lane closings at the George Washington Bridge, central to the scandal now swirling around Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, said on Friday that “evidence exists” the governor knew about the lane closings when they were happening.

In a letter released by his lawyer, the former official, David Wildstein, a high school friend of Mr. Christie’s who was appointed with the governor’s blessing at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls the bridge, described the order to close the lanes as “the Christie administration’s order” and said “evidence exists as well tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the governor stated publicly in a two-hour press conference” three weeks ago.

During his news conference, Mr. Christie specifically said he had no knowledge that traffic lanes leading to the bridge had been closed until after they were reopened. “I had no knowledge of this — of the planning, the execution or anything about it — and that I first found out about it after it was over,” he said. “And even then, what I was told was that it was a traffic study.”

The letter does not specify what the evidence was. Nonetheless, it is the first signal that Mr. Christie, a Republican, may have been aware of the closings, and marks a striking break with a previous ally.

The letter, sent from Mr. Wildstein’s lawyer, Alan Zegas, is to the Port Authority’s general counsel, contesting the agency’s decision over the legal fees. But it is clearly meant as a threat to the governor. Indeed, the allegations make up just one paragraph in a two-page letter that otherwise focuses on Mr. Wildstein’s demand that his legal fees be paid and that he be indemnified.

Mr. Zegas did not respond to requests to discuss the letter, which also consisted of a strong defense of Mr. Wildstein against negative comments Mr. Christie made about him during the news conference. “Mr. Wildstein contests the accuracy of various statements that the governor made about him, and he can prove the inaccuracy of some,” the letter added.

The bridge scandal erupted in early January, when documents emerged revealing that a deputy chief of staff to the governor, Bridget Anne Kelly, had sent an email to Mr. Wildstein saying, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” the town at the New Jersey end of the bridge, where Mr. Christie’s aides had pursued but failed to receive an endorsement from the mayor, who is a Democrat. The letter does not delve into the motives behind the lane closings.

A spokesman for Mr. Christie did not immediately return a call seeking comment on Friday.

Mr. Christie has steadfastly denied that he knew before this month that anyone in his administration was responsible for the lane closings, and his administration has tried to portray the closures as the actions of a rogue staff member.

The governor fired Ms. Kelly.

The closings caused extensive gridlock in Fort Lee, stretching some commutes to four hours and delaying emergency vehicles.

Mr. Wildstein communicated the order to close the lanes to bridge operators. He resigned from his position as the director of interstate capital projects at the Port Authority in early December, saying that the scandal over the lane closings in September had become “a distraction.” In a statement that documents show was personally approved by the governor, the administration praised him as “a tireless advocate for New Jersey’s interests at the Port Authority.”

The Port Authority has since refused to pay his legal costs associated with inquiries by the New Jersey Legislature and United States attorney into the lane closings. In his two-hour news conference earlier this month, Mr. Christie said his friendship with Mr. Wildstein had been overstated; that while the governor had been class president and an athlete, he did not recall Mr. Wildstein well from that period and had rarely seen him in recent months.

The Wall Street Journal has since published photos showing the two men laughing together at a Sept. 11 anniversary event — which happened during the four days the lanes were closed. A high school baseball coach also recalled them as friends in high school.

The Legislature has sent subpoenas to Mr. Wildstein and 17 other people as well as the governor’s campaign and administration seeking information about the lane closings. That information is due back on Monday.

Ms. Kelly’s email was revealed in documents Mr. Wildstein submitted in response to an earlier subpoena from the legislature. But those documents were heavily redacted, leaving clues but no answers as to who else might have been involved in the lane closings. Some of the documents, for example, showed texts between Mr. Wildstein and Ms. Kelly trying to set up a meeting with the governor around the time the plan for the lane closings was hatched. But it is unclear what the meeting was about.

Other texts show Mr. Wildstein and Mr. Christie’s top appointee at the Port Authority, Bill Baroni, disparaging the mayor of Fort Lee during the lane closings, and discussing how to respond to the mayor’s complaints and inquiries from reporters. Those texts, too, are heavily redacted, but indicate that the two men were in contact with the governor’s office at the time.

 

By: Kate Zernike, The New York Times, January 31, 2014

February 1, 2014 Posted by | Chris Christie | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Appealing Fiction For The Press”: How The Media Marketed Chris Christie’s Straight Shooter Charade

“Chris Christie is someone who is magical in the way politicians can be magical.” — Time’s Mark Halperin appearing on Meet The Press, November 10 2013.

A political bombshell detonated in my home state of New Jersey yesterday when published emails and text messages revealed that Gov. Chris Christie’s deputy chief of staff conspired with a Christie transportation appointee to create a four-day traffic jam last September, allegedly to punish a local Democratic mayor who refused to endorse the governor’s re-election. The unfolding drama not only raises doubts about Christie’s political future but also about the way the mainstream press has presented him over the years.

The widening dirty tricks scandal features patronage and political retribution wrapped in an unseemly culture of intimidation. In sharp contrast, the national political press has spent the last four years presenting, and even marketing, Christie as an above-the-fray politician who thrives on competence.

He’s been relentlessly and adoringly depicted as some sort of Straight Shooter. He’s an authentic and bipartisan Every Man, a master communicator, and that rare politician who cuts through the stagecraft and delivers hard truths. Christie’s coverage has been a long-running, and rather extreme, case of personality trumping substance.

But now the bridge bombshell casts all of that flattering coverage into question. How could the supposedly astute Beltway press corps spend four years selling Christie as a Straight Shooter when his close aides did things like orchestrate a massive traffic jam apparently to punish the governor’s political foes? When an appointee joked in texts about school buses being trapped in the political traffic backup? How could Christie be a Straight Shooter when he’s been caught peddling lies about the unfolding scandal and now claims he was misled about what people close to him were up to?

The truth is Christie was never the Straight Shooter that political reporters and pundits made him out to be. Not even close, as I’ll detail below. Instead, the Straight Shooter story represented appealing fiction for the press. They tagged him as “authentic” and loved it when he got into yelling matches with voters.

Media Matters recently rounded up some of media’s Christie sweet talk, which is particularly enlightening to review in the wake of the Trenton scandal developments:

In the last month alone, TIME magazine has declared that Christie governed with “kind of bipartisan dealmaking that no one seems to do anymore.” MSNBC’s Morning Joe called the governor “different,” “fresh,” and “sort of a change from public people that you see coming out of Washington.” In a GQ profile, Christie was deemed “that most unlikely of pols: a happy warrior,” while National Journal described him as “the Republican governor with a can-do attitude” who “made it through 2013 largely unscathed. No scandals, no embarrassments or gaffes.” ABC’s Barbara Walters crowned Christie as one of her 10 Most Fascinating People, casting him as a “passionate and compassionate” politician who cannot lie.

Note that when Christie last year easily won re-election against a weak Democratic opponent (via record low voter turnout), the Beltway press treated the win as some sort of national coronation (“Chris Christie is a rock star” announced CNN’s Carol Costello), with endless cable coverage and a round of softball interviews on the Sunday political talk circuit.

Here’s Time from last November’s celebration: “He’s a workhorse with a temper and a tongue, the guy who loves his mother and gets it done.” That, of course, is indistinguishable from a Christie office press release. But it’s been that way for years.

I detailed some of that absurdly fawning coverage in 2010 and 2011, but then I largely stopped writing about the phenomena simply because it became clear that the press was entirely and unapologetically committed to peddling Christie press clippings. They liked the GOP story and it was one they wanted to tell, just like they had been wed to the John-McCain-is-a-Maverick story. So they told it (selectively) over and over and over and over, regardless of the larger context about Christie’s actual behavior and his record as governor. (At one point under Christie in 2012, New Jersey’s unemployment hit a two year high that ranked among the highest in the U.S.)

But again, the dreamt-up Straight Shooter storyline never reflected reality. Here are several examples drawn from just a 10-month stretch during Christie’s first term:

*In August of 2010, the state was shocked to discover it had narrowly missed out on $400 million worth of desperately needed education aid from the federal government because New Jersey’s application for the grant was flawed. Christie initially tried to blame the Obama administration but that claim was shown to be false.

Christie’s own Education Commissioner then publicly blamed Christie for the failure to land the money. He insisted the governor, who famously feuds with the state’s teacher unions, had placed that political battle and his right-wing credentials ahead of securing the federal funds and that Christie had told him the “money was not worth it” to the state if it meant he had to cooperate with teachers.

*In November 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice inspector general found that while serving as U.S. attorney, Christie routinely billed taxpayers for luxury hotels on trips and failed to follow federal travel regulations.

*That December, Christie chose to leave New Jersey for a family vacation in Disney World even though forecasters had warned a blizzard was barreling towards the state, and even though Christie’s No. 2 was already out of the state visiting her ailing father. Worse, in the wake of the epic storm, Christie refused to return home early to help the state deal with the historic blizzard that left portions of the state buried under 30 inches of snow and paralyzed for days. (The storm was so severe the Garden State had to appeal to FEMA for $53 million in disaster aid.)

When Christie did return, he held a press conference and blamed state officials who didn’t escape to the Sunshine State for doing such a poor job managing the state’s emergency response. Bottom line: Christie said he wouldn’t have changed a thing because “I had a great five days with my children.”

*In May of 2011, Christie flew in a brand new, $12 million state-owned helicopter to watch his son play a high school baseball game. After landing on a nearby football field, Christie was driven 300 feet in a black car with tinted windows to the baseball diamond. When he was done watching five innings, Christie boarded the helicopter and flew home. The trip cost $2,500 and Christie initially refused to reimburse the state for the expenses.

Keep in mind, these are all Christie tales that reporters and pundits almost pathologically omitted from their glowing profiles in recent years. Why? None of them fit within the narrow confines of the established narrative, so they were simply ignored.

Now with Christie’s political career reeling thanks to a shockingly vindictive and partisan scandal, it’s time for the press to drop the Straight Shooter charade.

 

By: Eric Boehlert, Senior Fellow, Media Matters for America; The Huffington Post, January 9, 2014

January 10, 2014 Posted by | Chris Christie, Media | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

   

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