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Documents show effort to cover up N.J. traffic snarl

Christie staffer wouldn’t discuss issue in e-mail

Officials loyal to Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey went to elaborate means to make it appear that the September closing of lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge was part of a traffic study, even though their private communications suggest that the move was purely political, according to documents released Friday.

The documents also show a concerted effort to keep their true motivation hidden, including the insistence by one official of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in an e-mail that communications about the matter should not be conducted by e-mail or discussed publicly.

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Ultimately, the traffic diversion, in Fort Lee, N.J., led to four mornings of gridlock, months of investigations into whether the move was a blunt display of political payback, and what has become the gravest challenge to Christie’s political career after it was revealed that a top aide was intimately involved in the matter.

The release Friday of roughly 2,000 pages of documents, which included e-mails and texts among top officials in the Christie administration and Port Authority officials, the bridge’s operator, came one day after Christie apologized for, he said, unwittingly misleading the public. The governor, a Republican, called the entire episode “embarrassing and humiliating.”

Christie spent Thursday trying to repair the damage the unfolding scandal has done to his image and his possible aspirations to run for president in 2016. But even as questions continued to swirl Friday, he was still planning to travel to Florida next week to raise money for Republican candidates. He did not comment on the newly released documents.

The documents suggest that the decision to close the lanes had been met with confusion by local officials and workers ordered to close them.

Inspector Darcy Licorish of the Port Authority Police Department, who was assigned to place the orange cones directing local traffic away from three toll lanes, wrote that superiors could not answer how long the new traffic pattern was intended to last or whether Fort Lee officials had been informed of the change.

The new documents offer a look at the internal strife the lane closings set off within the Port Authority.

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For months, Christie denied that his administration had any role in the decision. At the same time, lawmakers held hearings and subpoenaed witnesses and documents to determine what had happened.

On Wednesday, some of those communications were made public, revealing that one of Christie’s top aides had apparently played an integral role in ordering the lanes closed and that the motivation was to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, who refused to endorse Christie’s reelection effort.

On Aug. 13, that aide, Bridget Anne Kelly, one of Christie’s deputy chiefs of staff, sent an e-mail to David Wildstein, a Christie appointee at the Port Authority, saying, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

“Got it,” Wildstein replied.

One month later, on Sept. 9, several local lanes onto the bridge, the world’s busiest, were suddenly closed, snarling traffic in Fort Lee and causing headaches for thousands of commuters. The lanes remained closed for days.

As the matter came under increasing scrutiny, Wildstein and another Christie loyalist at the authority, Bill Baroni, resigned. Kelly was fired.

The new documents offer a look at the internal strife the lane closings set off within the Port Authority, ultimately pitting the executive director, Patrick J. Foye, who was appointed by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, against officials from New Jersey. At one point, as Foye continued to inquire about the matter, Wildstein called him a “piece of crap” in an e-mail to Michael Drewniak, Christie’s chief spokesman.

Foye had pressed the matter internally, vowing in an e-mail dated Sept. 13 to investigate. He wrote that he was “appalled” by the “hasty and ill-advised” decision that had been carried out without informing local officials, saying that it had caused economic harm, endangered residents of Fort Lee, and “violates federal law and the laws” of New York and New Jersey.

He seemed dismissive of the idea that the lanes had been closed for a traffic study.

In November, Drewniak exchanged a series of profanity-laced e-mails with Wildstein, cursing reporters and disparaging Foye, as well.

The tension between officials from New York and New Jersey is an underlying theme of many of the documents.

When Foye first e-mailed Baroni about the closings, Baroni told him that they had to talk about it in person rather than by e-mail, and that there could be “no public discourse.”

On Sept. 13, the day the lanes were finally reopened, a staff member responsible for fielding reporters’ calls wrote to Baroni and Foye, saying that he had several inquiries from local newspapers.

Baroni said he would seek guidance, and several hours later he wrote back with a statement saying that the Port Authority had been conducting a traffic study.

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