It is just one document among the hundreds released last week related to the George Washington Bridge lane closures, but an early December email sent from the official who ordered the closures to Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) spokesperson may have had its significance overlooked in the initial crush of coverage about the scandal.
“Thanks again for all your sound advice last night, I always appreciate your friendship,” former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey executive David Wildstein wrote to Christie spokesperson Michael Drewniak on Dec. 5, the morning after the pair shared a dinner. “Spoke with O’Toole this morning and he will talk with you later today.”
One of the key New Jersey Democrats behind the investigation of the closures told TPM on Friday that “O’Toole” was almost certainly New Jersey state Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R) — a Christie ally who by day is a name partner at a New Jersey-based law firm which describes its lawyers as “experts in crisis management.” A further complication: O’Toole was named this week to a new state Senate committee tasked with investigating the lane closures.
“I would assume from reading that email that it was Sen. O’Toole that he spoke with,” New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D), who is leading the committee, told TPM. “If that is so, I assume that Sen. O’Toole will clear up that there will be no conflict to his serving on the committee.”
It is not clear what exactly Wildstein and O’Toole may have discussed on Dec. 5. But Wildstein — whose attorney did not respond to a request for comment — announced his resignation from the Port Authority the day after he sent the email mentioning O’Toole.
O’Toole did not respond this week to numerous requests for comment, including messages left at both his state Senate and law offices. In a phone conversation with TPM on Friday, O’Toole’s Chief of Staff Al Barlas could not say one way or the other whether his boss had spoken with Wildstein on Dec. 5.
“I can’t confirm that, because I don’t know,” Barlas said, adding that he could say that O’Toole had spoken with Wildstein in the past about “government-related matters regarding the Port Authority.”
TPM talked to Barlas based on a tip from a reader on Thursday. The reader emailed TPM saying he was a constituent of O’Toole’s and that a staffer in the office had confirmed to him that O’Toole had talked to Wildstein on Dec. 5.
TPM called O’Toole’s office and spoke to a woman who answered the phone there. She said the constituent had talked to Barlas and she confirmed the nature of the conversation.
But Barlas had a different take. When asked about the constituent, Barlas said the man “must have misunderstood” him. Then when asked about the woman who answered the phone at the office, Barlas said she “should not have confirmed that” and had acted counter to office policy regarding constituent phone calls.
“I don’t know where she got that from,” Barlas said.
Democrats in New Jersey have for months asserted that the closures, which led to a massive traffic jam in the town of Fort Lee, N.J., were political retaliation against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who declined to endorse Christie’s re-election last year. Multiple investigations into the incident have been gaining steam since the release last week of thousands of pages of subpoenaed documents.
On Thursday, the state Senate voted 33-0 to authorize the creation of a special committee to investigate the closures, and O’Toole was named one of the committee’s seven members. In remarks delivered before the vote, O’Toole urged his colleagues to be “very, very careful as we convene here today about drawing conclusions to facts that we do not know.”
“All 40 of us have a relationship with this governor,” O’Toole said. “Let’s get to the facts and it will take us where it takes us.”
Questions have previously been raised about O’Toole’s role in possible efforts to counter the mounting scandal over the lane closures. On Nov. 25, O’Toole’s office issued a press release criticizing Democrats for holding a “discriminatory” hearing about the lane closures “without addressing why [the] rest of New Jerseyeans must endure Fort Lee induced traffic every day.”
“Today’s hearing is an example of the type of government waste that happens when out-of-touch Democrats try to score political points against an ever-popular governor,” O’Toole said in a statement included in the press release. “Five legislative districts in this state have more commuters who use the bridge than Fort Lee, including nearly 6,400 from my District 40. … Are these New Jerseyans not as important as Fort Lee residents?”
O’Toole recently denied to The Bergen Record that he was part of any coordinated attempt to spin the bridge’s traffic numbers and minimize the scandal.
“I was worried about District 40 first and foremost,” O’Toole told the newspaper.
Additional reporting by Hunter Walker.
(Pictured above: New Jersey state Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R), left, next to Gov. Chris Christie (R) at a 2012 press conference.)