Sunday, February 28, 2016

Forced e-mail disclosure provides glimpse at high-level reaction to GWB scandal; Wildstein seen a PA 'cancer'

New York’s top appointee to the Port Authority and his chief of staff went to great lengths to investigate, control and limit damage from the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal, according to a trove of emails released in response to a lawsuit filed by The Record.

In a story published on February 27 and updated on February 28, Record reporter Paul Berger writes:

David Garten, working on behalf of Port Authority Vice Chairman Scott Rechler, probed the New Jersey side of the agency, reviewed emails before they were turned over to a legislative committee investigating the lane closures, and provided talking points to the agency’s executive director, Pat Foye, ahead of Foye’s testimony before that committee.

“We were trying to do our best to navigate trying times while still ensuring the agency could accomplish its mission for the public,” Rechler told The Record on Friday. “We didn’t want the agency to be paralyzed while this was going on.”

The emails show the deep divide between commissioners and employees appointed by the governors of New Jersey and New York.

As early as Sept. 18, 2013, five days after the lane closures were reversed, Garten wrote to Rechler that he was concerned about the influence of David Wildstein, an aide to Governor Christie at the agency who was at the heart of the lane-closure scandal. In particular, he was concerned about Wildstein’s influence over Brian Simon, a New York appointee who was then the agency’s director of government and community relations.

“The NJ side knows he’s weak and he’s not in the loop and they use him to plant seeds against us,” Garten wrote about Simon.

The following day, Rechler responded that Wildstein had to be neutralized as quickly as possible.

“His power base seems to be expanding and his actions are getting more and more outrageous,” Rechler wrote. “We need to move quickly to expose him but we also need to make sure that our first shot is powerful because he is not going to go down easily.”

Simon, who now works in the private sector, did not respond to a request for comment, and Garten declined to comment.

Rechler said: “It was my view that David Wildstein was a cancer to the agency and really his presence struck a sense of fear into many of the staff members and created a lot of dysfunctionality.”

Wildstein, who resigned from the Port Authority three months after the scandal broke, did not respond to a request for comment. He pleaded guilty last year to conspiring to close two of three access lanes to the bridge to punish the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie’s 2013 reelection bid. The closures caused debilitating traffic jams in Fort Lee over five mornings and the resulting scandal plagued Christie’s failed presidential campaign.

Two Christie associates, his former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and the Port Authority’s former deputy executive director, Bill Baroni, are due to stand trial in May for their alleged roles in the conspiracy.

Rechler’s and Garten’s emails were released late Thursday in response to a lawsuit filed last month by North Jersey Media Group. The suit contends the Port Authority violated public records laws by denying two freedom of information requests late last year.

In response to the suit, the Port Authority released almost 900 pages, many of which were redacted in total or in part, while withholding other documents. Jennifer Borg, general counsel for North Jersey Media Group, said Friday: “We are reviewing the documents that the Port Authority provided to us last night as well as the index it provided explaining why certain material was redacted and why other records were not produced at all.”

Borg added: “The fact that records were provided only the day before the authority’s court deadline shows how the lawsuit was the catalyst for the production of records.”

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