According to reporting from Bloomberg – apparently single-source reporting that no other outlets feel comfortable confirming yet – David Wildstein, a political fixture in New Jersey and formerly one of Gov. Chris Christie’s top appointees at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is set to plead guilty to a still-unknown charge or charges “as early as” Friday at the federal courthouse in downtown Newark.
Originally, Bloomberg’s story pegged the date for that plea as Thursday. Then Friday. Now “as early as” Friday, which could mean that we’ll see flying cars sooner.
The ratio of speculation-to-verifiable facts in Bridgegate has always been lopsided when it comes to reporting on the activities and intentions of U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman. For months – and by months, I mean since last June (!) – I’ve had well-placed sources warning me that Fishman’s office had indictments waiting just around the corner. The first of those claims was made in print a year ago, and as enthusiasm for the story ebbed amid a burgeoning presidential campaign and string of aviation disasters, these warnings became a kind of background noise. Reporting on the prosecutorial side of Bridgegate has always been difficult because the prosecutor and his deputies simply do not let information flow freely – a corrective reaction to the habits of Fishman’s predecessor: Chris Christie. Christie was the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey from 2002 until 2008 and relished marching handcuffed pols before cameras. The scalps he collected through corruption stings built up the kind of resume a Republican needed if he wanted a shot at winning the governorship from an incumbent Democrat in a labor-friendly northeastern state that’s run blue in every presidential contest since 1992.
Crucial to Christie’s ascendancy was the narrative crafted week after week by David Wildstein. The two went to high school together in Livingston, N.J., then Wildstein returned from college and won election to local office in that town. He subsequently became the anonymous force behind PoliticsNJ.com (now PolitickerNJ.com) using as a nom de plume the visage of deceased early 20th century GOP Gov. Walter ‘Wally’ Edge.
Choosing to front as Wally Edge was no accident – do yourself a favor and read his Wikipedia bio. Wildstein is as enthusiastic about the history, personalities, and structural mechanics that compel human beings to be political animals as anyone you can imagine. But he wasn’t just a good teammate for trivia night. What made his weekly “Inside Edge” column a compelling must-read for political professionals was that he understands how power works. In the contests that define New Jersey politics, Election Day voter mobilizations are organized by local and county-level parties that have been designed to maximize advantages in a relentlessly competitive environment. They function only if they’re disciplined, operating under an almost Machiavellian set of assumptions: loyalty is to be rewarded, often with jobs. Mutinies are to be punished. And power can only be wielded by appreciating both the personal motivations and institutional capacities of the officeholders and offices of what we call, in shorthand, ‘the state.’ Beneath the gossip and horserace covered in his columns, ‘Wally Edge’ showed evidence of having spent years thinking about how political power works on a granular level within a state system.
During his years as New Jersey’s top federal prosecutor, Chris Christie enjoyed – and solicited – the approval of ‘Wally Edge.’ I have no way of knowing whether Christie and Wildstein were directly in touch during these years. But I do know that Christie and his staff monitored PoliticsNJ.com closely.
Closely enough that when I covered Cory Booker’s first unsuccessful run for mayor in Newark in 2002, I wrote and posted a story from the backseat of a Suburban using a laptop connected to a cell phone dialing up to an AOL account. The piece, with photos, described how members of a gang called the Tombstones were being paid by then-mayor Sharpe James to intimidate voters at a polling station in a public housing project.
Minutes after that story went live, as I was sitting in the backseat of this SUV, a small squadron of black cars pulled into the parking lot, and out stepped a half dozen clean cut government prosecutors and FBI agents who were working that day as as federal monitors. They’d been deployed in Newark that day on Christie’s orders. When Christie held a press conference to discuss Newark’s mayoral race later that day, he stood at a lectern with a rolled up sheet of paper in his hand. In it, as he showed me later, was my gang story. It had been updated, by me, to describe the feds’ arrival and Christie’s (completely justified) placement of monitors in what had been a brutal street fight of a race.
After six years of that kind of coverage, Christie won election in 2009. And in 2010 I learned the true identity of ‘Wally Edge’ when Christie recruited Wildstein out of anonymity to become the director of interstate capital projects at the massive Port Authority of New York and New Jersey – one of the most powerful agencies in the state that most people have never heard of. Wildstein’s position had to be created for him and was abolished following his resignation in 2013.
He arrived with no background in transportation; instead he was to be Christie’s “eyes and ears” at the agency as the governor set out to extract transportation funds for in-state projects by steering them away from the agency’s core operations. As one New York appointee at the agency told me last year, Wildstein was a “gardener” always “cultivating political opportunities” for the governor. Wildstein’s appointment calendar, released through a freedom of information request with the agency and scoured by a team of reporters at WNYC, shows that his meetings were usually with political operatives rather than transportation officials or transit experts. The calendar shows frequent trips to Trenton to visit the governor’s office and possibly Christie himself. In contrast to Christie’s suggestion that he and Wildstein were nearly strangers, we know that the governor went so far as to have the state capital’s official portrait of Gov. Walter Edge removed from an upper tier of the building’s rotunda so it could instead hang in his suite of offices on the first floor of the building. The two men were even photographed in front of the portrait – just one of many instances in which Christie and Wildstein have been documented speaking together in person.
We don’t know if Wildstein and prosecutors will finally agree to a plea bargain, or if it will in any way touch the governor he once served. Christie’s disownment of Wildstein last year was a high-risk move. Through his attorney Wildstein had already made it clear in an appearance before a state legislative committee that he wanted to deal with state and federal prosecutors. A subsequent letter suggested that Christie had known about lane closures at the George Washington Bridge as they were occurring in September 2013. It remains unclear whether there ever was paper to back up that claim, yet Wildstein’s awareness of other activities at the Port Authority makes him a valuable asset to prosecutors and a threat to Christie so long as he can tie the governor to any of the numerous areas being investigated at the agency. According to sources, Wildstein cooperated with Fishman’s prosecutors in early 2013, but when no immunity offer was forthcoming their talks stalled before resuming in recent months.
Although specific subpoenas have not made public, glimpses of the truly breathtaking scope of the federal investigation have become visible every time the Port Authority has issued new bonds.
Official disclosures reveal that the agency has had to answer subpoenas on a wide-ranging and ever-broadening number of issues.
One particular area of interest to investigators involves former Port Authority board chairman David Samson’s use of his position at the agency to persuade executives at United Airlines to begin running a money-losing flight from Newark Liberty International Airport to a South Carolina airport located near Samson’s vacation home.
According to a Bloomberg report, Samson threatened to hold up a contract between the Port Authority and the airline concerning a large hangar on the grounds of Newark unless the company would agree to the South Carolina route, a flight Samson reportedly referred to as “the chairman’s flight.” You can see the agenda item from the Port Authority’s December 2011 meeting below, followed by the relevant section of the Port Authority’s latest bond offering.
In my mind, the “chairman’s flight” detail could have only come from someone who’d heard it spoken of in that way firsthand. Someone now feeding information to prosecutors to guide their investigation of Samson, and possibly Christie as well. Someone who knows where the bodies are buried. Someone who knows how the game is played.
Someone like David Wildstein.
Brian Murphy is a history professor at Baruch College who writes about the intersection of money and politics. You can follow him on Twitter @Burrite and find him at brianphillipsmurphy.com.