On Monday September 9, 2013, the first of four days of now-infamous lane closures at the George Washington Bridge that triggered paralyzing traffic jams in the town of Fort Lee, N.J., the mayor of that town, Mark Sokolich, placed a phone call to Bill Baroni, the No. 2 executive at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Baroni, a former Republican state senator, had been the agency’s deputy executive director since being appointed to the job in 2010 by Gov. Chris Christie. On paper, his title may have been “deputy,” but because the agency is structured to distribute power between New York and New Jersey, that position is actually equal to the executive director. Under an agreement between the two states, New Jersey’s governor appoints both the deputy director and chairman of the agency’s board of commissioners, while the New York governor appoints its top director and the vice-chairman of its board. As a practical matter, then, the “deputy” and “vice” adjectives are mostly meaningless formalities; Baroni had the real power in the agency, for which he was paid a $290,000 salary.
When Mayor Sokolich tried to reach Baroni, warning him of an “urgent matter of public safety in Fort Lee,” Baroni’s assistant forwarded him the message by email at 9:29 a.m. Baroni didn’t reply. Instead, he sought guidance from a subordinate: David Wildstein, a former political blogger (and my onetime boss) who held the title of Director of Interstate Capital Projects – a $150,000 a year job created especially for him and abolished following his resignation.
Among officials who worked alongside Wildstein, it was widely understood that he was – as the Bergen Record noted in 2012 – Chris Christie’s “eyes and ears” at the Port Authority. One top New York appointee described him as someone who looked at the agency as a garden; “[Wildstein] was there to cultivate political opportunities.” In that role, it often was unclear to staff whether Baroni was in fact Wildstein’s superior; both took orders from Trenton, and Wildstein was frequently in contact with members of Gov. Christie’s staff.
When Wildstein saw the message Mayor Sokolich had sent to Baroni, he wrote back with instructions: “radio silence.”
At that same moment, Wildstein forwarded the message he had received from Baroni to Bridget Anne Kelly, the deputy chief of staff to Gov. Christie, and author of the “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email that set these events in motion. Minutes later, Kelly wrote back to ask Wildstein whether Baroni had replied to Mayor Sokolich’s plea for help.
Wildstein replied, “Radio silence. His name comes right after mayor Fulop.” To which Kelly wrote back, “Ty.”
There are a few things going on in this exchange. Port Authority officials are plainly being told that their actions are causing a public safety problem in Fort Lee. A top aide to Governor Christie is notified too. None of them seem troubled by it. At all.
What’s also evident here is that it’s not an official at the Port Authority who seems to be in charge of this operation directed against Mayor Sokolich; rather, it’s Bridget Kelly, who thanks David Wildstein for instructing Bill Baroni to ignore the mayor’s call. And their exchange makes clear that this wasn’t the only time she and Christie’s operatives at the Port Authority had collaborated to punish a New Jersey mayor.
Since January, we have known that federal prosecutors subpoenaed Governor Christie’s re-election campaign for records detailing what kind of retaliatory measures were taken against Jersey City mayor Stephen Fulop after he declined to endorse the governor’s 2013 re-election bid.
On Thursday, Ted Mann of the Wall Street Journal reported that the Feds subpoeaned the Port Authority this week for Fulop-related records as well.
I have also learned that weeks after resigning from his position as Deputy Executive Director at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in December 2013, Bill Baroni voluntarily turned over emails, documents, and other correspondence to federal prosecutors just as they were starting their investigation. N.J. Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who co-chairs a special investigative committee looking into the Port Authority and Governor Christie’s office, said that his “assumption all along has been that people who we have sought information from were also sought out by the U.S. Attorney.” A representative for Mr. Baroni could not be reached for comment.
For all of the narrative appeal tied to the George Washington Bridge story, federal prosecutors are investigating a wide array of activities. Although some of the actions taken against Fulop have been publicly known since early 2014, the Christie administration’s animus towards him has become more evident as additional documents come to light.
Fulop, who recently turned 38, won election as mayor of the state’s second-largest city in May 2013, and took office on July 1 of that year. Then running for re-election and eyeing a presidential run, Chris Christie was eager to portray himself as a bipartisan dealmaker. He even traveled to the mayor’s swearing-in ceremony, where he made headlines for offering boilerplate praise to Fulop’s wife and children.
Fulop, who is unmarried, has no children.
The mayor had been in office for just fifteen days when two of Christie’s top political operatives – campaign manager Bill Stepien and Mike DuHaime, a former RNC political director who had worked on Christie’s 2009 election – decided to put the screws to him. “We’re approaching a point in time where we have the ‘so what’s it gonna be?’ conversation with [Hoboken mayor Dawn] Zimmer and Fulop. Are you with us or against us?” Stepien wrote to DuHaime on July 16, 2013. “We’re never going to be in a better position than right now to have that conversation.”
Two days later, Fulop’s advisers told Christie’s political team that the Democratic mayor, who had beaten a Democratic incumbent by 52%-37%, would not be endorsing the governor.
The administration had previously scheduled meetings between the mayor and various officials – part of a so-called “Mayor’s Day” on July 23 – to provide introductions and briefings on important state and local issues. But an hour after Fulop’s endorsement decision was relayed to Christie’s political team, “Mayor’s Day” was called off. Cabinet members in Christie’s treasury, transporation, community affairs, and Hurricane Sandy recovery agencies all cancelled their meetings with the mayor.
The following day, July 19, Bill Baroni’s meeting was also cancelled. On Monday, July 22, a meeting with Christie’s longtime aide Michele Brown, who headed the state’s Economic Development Agency, was also cancelled.
Based on interviews conducted by the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher as part of their investigation that was commissioned by and purposed to exonerate Gov. Christie, both Bill Stepien and Bridget Kelly seem to be complicit as the leaders of this retaliation against Fulop.
Matt Mowers, a Republican operative who worked in the governor’s Intergovernmental Affairs office (IGA), told Christie’s attorneys that Stepien would have spoken with Fulop about the endorsement, while Kelly would have been in charge of arranging meetings between high-level state and local officials.
Former N.J. Transporation Commissioner James Simpson told Christie’s lawyers that it was Kelly who canceled his meeting with the mayor, even though he regarded it as an important one.
Community Affairs commissioner Richard Constable, too, recalled that it was Bridget Kelly who cancelled his meeting with Fulop.
Interestingly, Christie’s top lawyer, former counsel Charles McKenna, dismissed Fulop’s allegations of retaliation as “contrived and suspect,” even though Simpson had gone through McKenna to reschedule the cancelled meeting with Fulop.
Based on the speed with which Fulop’s endorsement decision was communicated from Christie’s campaign to the Office of the Governor and translated into scheduling changes with the principals of six state agencies, there was no practical barrier between the governor’s campaign and state employees in his Trenton office. It’s worth noting that a similar collaboration was shown to have happened among Stepien, Kelly, Wildstein, and Baroni during Bridgegate, when Bill Baroni forwarded a letter from Mark Sokolich to Bill Stepien with the annotation “following up.”
Is it illegal to cancel a meeting? No. But granting or withholding of public services or funds based on a mayor’s election-year endorement of a governor from an opposing political party may be what is attracting federal attention.
Only days before she was fired, Bridget Kelly herself seemed to be interested in recalling what she had done to Stephen Fulop. According to an aide, she asked about the nature of the meetings she’d cancelled and whether the Chrisite administration had offered any aid to Jersey City since Fulop had become mayor.
And on the day Kelly was fired, Chris Christie appeared before the media to hold a marathon press conference claiming to be ignorant of events surrounding Bridgegate. At that press conference he was asked about Stephen Fulop, and his answer is revealing:
Christie did not deny that his administration or the Port Authority might have played hardball with Jersey City officials. “There’s going to be meetings cancelled” in the event of disagreements, Christie explained. “When we disagree with [Fulop] we’ll express those disagreements. And sometimes that’ll mean friction. He’s suing the Port Authority, at the moment, OK? So there’s lots of back and forth and to and fro that happens in these things.”
Did you catch that?
Christie plainly stated that part of the way his administration confronted disagreements was to retaliate against local officials by cancelling meetings. And he clearly knew of Fulop’s disputes with the Port Authority over real estate taxes the agency does not pay on property it owns in Jersey City. Fulop began making that an issue in the fall of 2013, and in May 2014 filed a $400 million lawsuit against the agency.
Fulop had tried to discuss that issue with Bill Baroni months earlier, but, alas, their meeting had been cancelled. In August 2013, Fulop wrote, “I am not sure if it is a coincidence that your office cancelled a meeting several weeks back that seemed to be simultaneous to other political conversations elsewhere that were happening…. I sincerely hope the two issues are not related as it wouldn’t be in the PA, Jersey City, or the residents of the state’s best interest.”
What remains to be seen is whether prosecutors find evidence that these meetings didn’t just involve withholding face time from Jersey City, but could have put public funds at stake as well. Stay tuned.
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