By Ron Leir
Two mayors want more information on the “Bridgegate” scandal, three are satisfied with the governor’s explanation, and two have no public reaction.
That’s how municipal chief executives – all Democrats – in The Observer’s coverage area assess Gov. Chris Christie’s two-hour press conference last Thursday following published disclosures of e-mails by Christie staffers pointing to a political agenda behind the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey’s Washington Bridge lane closures in Fort Lee during four mornings in September 2013.
Christie fired his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, severed ties to former campaign manager Bill Stepien, and apologized to Fort Lee residents for the massive local traffic delays stemming from the P.A. blocking access lanes to the GWB.
Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, two Christie appointees at the P.A. whose e-mails were among those cited as evidence that the closures were orchestrated as political retribution for Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich’s failure to endorse Christie for re-election, resigned last month. Baroni had said the lane closures were part of a traffic study.
In a two-hour press conference, Christie said he was “blindsided” by people he trusted as part of his staff. Democratic state lawmakers are pursuing an investigation and federal prosecutors are contemplating one.
Meanwhile, Kearny Mayor Alberto Santos says he’s not buying the governor’s story. “There was an abuse of power and the explanations given so far are not convincing. Why is Wildstein pleading the Fifth and why were many of the e-mails [released by the P.A. in response to state subpoenas] redacted? In some case, you don’t always know who received these e-mails.”
“In order to get this behind us, everything has to be released and reviewed and then one can have confidence in explanations given. I would hope the governor would turn over all information, including e-mails — unredacted – so we can get this behind us. By doing this piecemeal, having a media frenzy, it doesn’t serve our state well; it’s continuing a disservice to the residents of New Jersey and gets in the way of government in New Jersey.”
Santos, a who backed State Sen. Barbara Buono, the party’s nominee for governor, said he was asked to endorse Christie for re-election – twice – in January 2013. “The request came in by phone from an aide to the governor. They were very polite.” He said he declined.
Harrison Mayor Raymond McDonough, the first Democratic mayor in the state to announce his support of Christie in January 2013 – and one of three Democratic Hudson County mayors (Michael Gonnelli of Secaucus and Brian Stack of Union City), along with Belleville Mayor Ray Kimble, to do so – said he took the governor’s apology at face value.
“He’s always been supportive of local communities,” McDonough said last week. “He wouldn’t knowingly harm any community.”
An example of that support came in March 2012, when the P.A. board of commissioners voted to allocate more than $250 million for a long-awaited upgrade of the Harrison PATH station and, a few months later, Christie came to the town to mark the occasion.
“My new best friend invited me down to Trenton as his guest for his State of the State Address on Tuesday [Jan. 14],” the mayor noted.
Nutley Mayor Alphonse Petracco said he was inclined to take the governor at his word. “I know Gov. Christie, from working with him the past five years, and it’s no surprise to me he would take accountability for one of his staff members. If you’re in charge, that’s big of him. I’m impressed that he holds himself accountable and takes this one on the chin.”
Similarly impressed was Lyndhurst Mayor Robert Giangeruso, who said the governor “took full responsibility, with no excuses, answering all questions from the reporters.” Giangeruso said he met with Christie staffers seeking an endorsement “but they never pursued it.”
North Arlington Mayor Peter Massa suggested that Christie missed the boat on an approach he could have taken to show good faith and to get the truth.
“As soon as the issue surfaced as a serious policy issue, [Christie] should have directed the state Inspector General’s Office to conduct an investigation, jointly with the Port Authority’s own Inspector General’s Office,” said Massa, a former law enforcement officer.
Those investigators, Massa said, would be positioned to follow the trail leading, ultimately, to the origin of the lane closures. They could have established, Massa said, that “once an order is issued from someone, what was the role of the P.A. police commander in allowing cones to be set up, where was the documentation establishing the supposed need for a traffic study, and so forth. A great deal of evidence could be obtained by such an appropriate investigation and the governor would have headed off a lot of problems for himself.”
Did he find Christie’s explanation credible? “I would not say the governor isn’t being truthful,” Massa said, “but I think an investigation should go forward. The public has a right to know in issues like this and public authorities have to be accountable. … It would be sad if this was a political payback because even if the governor didn’t initiate it, still, it points up the character of people working in a high level of government – which is another reason why there is a level of distrust in government today.”
Massa, who backed Buono’s gubernatorial bid, said he “had a brief conversation about a year ago with a former member of [Christie’s] staff [seeking an endorsement] but it didn’t go anywhere.”
East Newark Mayor Joseph Smith and Kimble declined comment.