5:48pm

Wed January 8, 2014
Politics

The (Email) Thread That Tied Up The George Washington Bridge

Originally published on Wed January 8, 2014 10:29 pm

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie says he is outraged and saddened to learn that he was misled by staffers. Christie says people will be held responsible after having seen emails that were released today, emails that appear to show two of three local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge were closed for political reasons. It looks like the move was payback against the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, who had refused to endorse Christie for reelection.

Here's Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski.

ASSEMBLYMAN JOHN WISNIEWSKI: They show government at its worst. Among other things, they call into serious question the honesty of this governor and his staff. As a result of what has been revealed today, this governor has a lot of explaining to do.

SIEGEL: Well, here to do some explaining for us is Matt Katz. He covers the Christie administration for member station WNYC.

And, first off, Matt, this traffic jam, where it all began, what was the reason was given for the lane closures?

MATT KATZ, BYLINE: The initial reason given was that Christie appointees at the agency that runs the bridge, that they were doing a traffic study. So they needed to test lane closures. But it turned out that other officials at the agency knew of no such study, and four months later no study has surfaced. So this has all led to questions about whether this wasn't really about a traffic study, but it was really about some political shenanigans to go and get back at a local mayor for some reason.

SIEGEL: The bridge, of course, one of the big Hudson River crossings for commuters coming from New Jersey into New York City, what kind of impact did the closure have on computers in Fort Lee?

KATZ: It was very significant. I mean there were backups four hours a day for four days in a row. There were reports of a cardiac arrest, a lost child, emergency vehicles had trouble responding, and it was the first day of school so kids were having trouble getting to school. This is the busiest bridge in the world so any sort of changes like closing a couple of lanes can have far-reaching effects.

SIEGEL: And there has been talk for weeks that the lane closures were politically motivated. And two members of Governor Christie's team have resigned over it. Tell us about the governor's remarks today about all this.

KATZ: Well, this is the first time we've heard from him in several days on this. He is blaming a staffer in his front office. He released a statement saying that she lied to him. Because a couple - he didn't take this seriously in the beginning. I had asked him about this more than a month ago and he laughed at all, and he was sarcastic and said: Yeah, right, I was out there closing the lanes, putting the cones on the roads to close the lanes. Are you serious with that question? I had nothing to do with this, I don't know anything about a traffic study.

Then he had another press conference where he said that two officials at the agency had resigned. But still, he said this had nothing to do with those in his office. He said he'd asked his entire senior staff, his entire campaign, and nobody knew about political retribution against some mayor who didn't endorse him for reelection. Well, turns out in these emails that surfaced today the Democrats have subpoena power. They got all of these emails.

Turns out not only did those in his inner circle know about it but a few people seem to have known about it. And a top official - a top adviser of his wrote an email right before the lane closures and said: Time for some late closures in Fort Lee. And this means that his - and he's saying now that his staff lied to him.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Now there's a hearing planned, I gather, in the state capital in Trenton tomorrow and also a call for a federal investigation. What's likely to come of all that?

KATZ: Well, this is likely to go on for several months. The Democrats have subpoena power. They've probably found the biggest chink in the governor's armor so far in four years of a pretty popular time in office. And they're going to keep calling people and they're going to keep requesting documents, and they're going to keep making people testify. So this is going to go on for some time and Congress could get involved, too.

SIEGEL: We're talking about a rising star in the GOP, Chris Christie, a person talked about as a possible candidate for president. This can't help him.

KATZ: No. I mean in 2016, if he runs for president, if his opponents try to link this with other images we've seen of him yelling at teachers and reporters and try to frame is some tough guy, Tony Soprano who acts in the political alleyways, this could be a problem for his image long-term.

SIEGEL: OK. Thanks, Matt. That's reporter Matt Katz who covers the Christie administration for member station WNYC. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.