TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Emails and text messages released Wednesday link a top aide to Gov. Chris Christie to traffic jams in a New Jersey town in September that appear to have been engineered as political payback against its mayor.
"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Christie aide Bridget Anne Kelly wrote in August to David Wildstein, a top appointee of the governor's to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
"Got it," replied Wildstein. About a month later, he ordered closed two of three traffic lanes connecting Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge between New Jersey and New York City, one of the world's busiest spans.
The message was among a series of emails and texts obtained by The Associated Press and other news outlets Wednesday that are the clearest sign yet that Christie aides were involved in the lane closures. They contradict Christie's earlier assertions on the closures, when he denied that they were punitive and said his staff was not involved.
At a news conference in December, Christie described the episode as "not that big a deal." He said partisan politics were at play and blamed the media for being obsessed with the story.
Christie abruptly postponed a scheduled morning event after the emails were made public.
A star in the Republican Party who's considered a possible candidate for president in 2016, the governor has nurtured an image as both a tough talker who takes on such adversaries as public workers' unions and a politician willing to compromise. Democrats have increasingly criticized him for what they see as him tending to his national profile at the expense of taking care of New Jersey issues. As chairman of the Republican Governors Association, he's preparing to travel the country to help get Republican governors elected.
Wildstein, a childhood friend of the governor, has resigned over the lane closings, as has Christie's top Port Authority deputy, Bill Baroni. Both have hired lawyers. Wildstein is scheduled to testify under oath on Thursday before a state Assembly committee conducting one of three ongoing investigations into the lane closings.
The mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, originally described the closings as punitive, but later backed off that assertion. Sokolich, a Democrat, declined to endorse Christie's re-election campaign last fall. While Christie is a Republican, his campaign focused heavily on bipartisan support to bolster his image as a pragmatic leader who will work with his political opponents.
Sokolich appears to have raised objections about the lane closings almost immediately after they began, texting Baroni: "Presently we have four very busy traffic lanes merging into only one toll booth. The bigger problem is getting kids to school. Please help. It's maddening."
Among the unattributed texts from Christie aides and appointees is one commenting on Sokolich's pleas that reads, "Is it wrong that I'm smiling."
Among the communications, some of which are redacted, is an email from Wildstein to Kelly on Sept. 7, two days before the lane closings started. He said he'd call her "to let you know how Fort Lee goes."
Four days later, on the day Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye, an appointee of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, learned of the closings and reopened the lanes, Wildstein emailed Kelly: "We are appropriately going nuts. Samson helping us to retaliate," referring to Port Authority Chairman David Samson, who was appointed by Christie.
Most of the emails were sent using private addresses, rather than their government email accounts, the content of which would be subject to open records laws and therefore public.
Later, as questions began surfacing about what prompted the lane closure, Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien, one of the governor's most trusted advisers, discussed the controversy with Wildstein.
Sent a copy of an article about the closings by Wildstein, Stepien replied: "It's fine. The mayor is an idiot, though. (Win) some, lose some."
Associated Press writer David Porter contributed.