Bob Jordan, Asbury Park (N.J.) Press USA TODAY
TRENTON, N.J. - New Jersey's top official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey attempted to stop the agency's executive director from ending closures of lanes that accessed the George Washington Bridge, according to documents released Friday.
Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye - in a fuming Sept. 13 e-mail to several authority staffers including then Deputy Director Bill Baroni and Authority Chairman David Samson - complained about the lane closures, calling the decision "troubling" and saying he believed the action may have violated the law.
"I am appalled by the lack of process, failure to inform our customers and Fort Lee and most of all by the dangers created to public interest, so I am reversing this decision now effective as soon as TBT and PAPD tell me it is safe to do so today," Foye wrote.
The closures to the bridge that spans the Hudson River between New Jersey and New York created traffic nightmares for four days in early September, including the first day of school.
"This hasty and ill-advised decision has resulted in delays to emergency vehicles," Foye wrote. "I pray that no life has been lost or trip of a hospital- or hospice-bound patient delayed. ... I believe this hasty and ill-advised decision violates Federal Law and the laws of both States."
Foye also warned that he would pursue the matter aggressively.
"To be clear, I will get to the bottom of this abusive decision which violates everything this agency stands for; I intend to learn how PA process was wrongfully subverted and the public interest damaged to say nothing of the credibility of this agency," he wrote.
Twenty minutes after Foye's 7:44 a.m. e-mail, the bridge's general manager, Robert Durando, replied: "We have restored the 3 toll lanes to Ft. Lee."
But Baroni, then New Jersey's top official at the authority, balked at Foye's decision.
"Pat we need to discuss prior to any communications," Baroni wrote to Foye at 8:40 a.m. just after Foye asked, "How do we get the word out?" on reopening of the access lanes.
"Bill we are going to fix this fiasco," Foye replied at 8:55 a.m.
"I am on way to office to discuss. There can be no public discourse," Baroni wrote at 9:03 a.m. Baroni has resigned from the authority.
Those e-mails were among a 2,000-page trove of documents made public by the New Jersey General Assembly panel investigating the controversial closing of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge.
Lawmakers obtained the collection of e-mails and text messages under a subpoena issued to David Wildstein, a former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey executive and a central figure in the decision to close down the lanes.
Hundreds of other new documents were obtained from additional authority officials.
New Jersey Rep. John Wisniewski, chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, said the documents "raise many more questions. It's obvious that senior members of the governor's staff were involved in spin control once this story broke."
The Port Authority's chairman battled with its executive director over the lane closures.
Samson expressed anger at Foye in a series of e-mails to Scott Rechler, vice chairman of the Port Authority Board of Commissioners, accusing Foye of leaking information about the lane closures to the Wall Street Journal.
"I am told the ED leaked to the WSJ his story about Fort Lee issues - very unfortunate for NY/NJ relations," Samson wrote to Rechler at 8:02 p.m. Sept. 17. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed Foye to his position.
Rechler disputed Samson's accusation and said he did not think Foye was responsible for the Journal story.
"After my initial calls I don't think this is correct," Rechler said. "I also called Baroni who didn't think this was the case."
But Samson insisted Foye was the source of the leak, and in an early morning e-mail sent to Rechler on Sept. 18, he said Foye "made a big mistake."
"Scott: I just read it and it confirms evidence of Foye's being the leak, stirring up trouble - this is yet another example of a story, we've seen it before, where he distances himself from an issue in the press and rides in on a white horse to save the day (if you need prior examples I will provide) - in this case, he's playing in traffic, made a big mistake."
As public pressure and media scrutiny mounted after the September traffic jams, an e-mail to Wildstein indicated a push for improving spin on the incident.
"Has any thought been giving to writing an op-ed or providing a statement about the GWB study? Or is the plan just to hunker down and grit our way through it,'' Philippe Danielides, senior adviser to the port authority's chairman, wrote to Wildstein.
Another e-mail from Danielides to Wildstein underscored tension between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's appointees and those working on behalf of Cuomo, including Foye.
Foye was accused of ratting out the New Jersey side when he wrote a memo about the Fort Lee traffic tie-ups.
"The memo is strikingly over the top, no doubt he wrote it with the expectation that it would reach the public eye,'' Danielides said in e-mail to Wildstein.
In other e-mails, Port Authority Police Capt. Darcy Licorish explained Sept. 6 and 13 that the bridge's general manager had said Sept. 6 that a new traffic pattern would be in place starting Monday. The manager was not able to say that day if the change would be permanent or temporary and also couldn't say if Fort Lee had been notified.
The first of those e-mails noted that Wildstein was scheduled to visit Sept. 9, the Monday the lanes closed; Assistant Chief Gloria Frank wrote back, in part, "I will keep you updated with any information regarding his visit."
The Monday traffic delays were compounded because of an accident on the Cross Bronx Expressway in New York, Licorish said. Tuesday's delays were also "severe."
Officers were used at one intersection during the evening rush to help deal with the traffic. The traffic continued until the original pattern was reinstated Sept. 13, a Friday. Licorish said in an 8:11 a.m. Sept. 13 e-mail that Durando had just said he been instructed to reverse the lane closures.
The likelihood of traffic problems was discussed within the Port Authority police in e-mails Sept. 8 before the closure.
Lt. Thomas Michaels of the George Washington Bridge Command asks Licorish if a new traffic pattern will start Monday, is told yes, then asks, "Will this affect our normal rush hour operation?"
Licorish wrote back: "Most likely. Concerns were made to no aval (sic) locally."
In an e-mail at 11:25 a.m. Sept. 10, Durando says: "Just got off the phone with DW. He'd like to continue the test of (toll lane_ 24 through tomorrow." DW is likely David Wildstein.
Wisniewski, the Assembly Transportation Committee chairman, said the documents raise new questions.
"How much of the full picture was the governor's senior staff given regarding the development of this lane-closure project? With the tight control this administration maintains, it doesn't stretch the imagination that they were given more information than they let on," Wisniewski said. "When they were preparing spin control, how could they not have been given the whole story?''
Wednesday's release of a first batch of documents revealed that a chief aide to Christie knew about the lane closings before they occurred and the massive traffic jams the action was causing during the workweek.
The initial e-mails, also subpoenaed from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, indicated a political motive to the lane closures.
The governor announced two firings Thursday: Bridget Anne Kelly, the deputy chief of staff whose e-mails confirmed her involvement, and campaign manager Bill Stepien, whose response to e-mails about the closings contained disparaging remarks about the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., whose community is on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge.
Wildstein, a former port authority executive who exchanged e-mails with Kelly and was central to the decision to close the lanes, was scheduled to testify before an Assembly committee Thursday, but he pleaded the Fifth Amendment, refused to answer any questions and was found in contempt.