What a guy, that David Wildstein. A helluva guy. Why, he had the power to shut down entrance lanes to the George Washington Bridge in a way that would not only create a massive traffic jam for thousands but also would have increased the dangers of motor vehicle sideswipes and collisions at the entrance of the nation’s busiest interstate crossing.
But, did he do it? No—not our guy Dave. He’s got heart.
He was careful to shut down just enough lanes to the bridge in just the right way to stop traffic in Fort Lee, impede emergency vehicles in the town, make thousands late for work and strand school children on buses. For four miserable days.
Just like his boss, Gov. Chris Christie—David Wilstein was always thinking of us little guys down here below.
“I could not go from three lanes to zero,” Wildstein told a federal jury in Newark. “There would be accidents.” So, listening to the advice of a traffic engineer, he decides to reduce the number of lanes from three to one.
Wildstein, testifying against two other allies of the governor, showed just what state government is in the era of Christopher Christie, the self-proclaimed Jersey guy. He showed how far you could go to punish political enemies with a lot of imagination, a willingness to break the rules, and the absence of any scruples whatsoever. Wildstein, a boyhood chum of Christie, is a self-admitted dirty trickster who understands bureaucracy and drapes himself with just enough derivative power from his idol the governor to get his way—even if his way is designed to paralyze traffic for four days on one of the busiest traffic choke points in the world.
What an accomplishment.
And, despite his efforts to blame defendants Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni for the mess, Wildstein made it clear in that courtroom Monday that he owned the idea from the beginning. This was his project.
So let’s look at the Wildstein playbook, as he described it in court.
- DESCRIBE THE PROBLEM. It was trying to get Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich to endorse Christie for governor. Wildstein says Christie and Sokolich were getting along fine but, come around March of 2013, the Democratic mayor, while accepting all sorts of favors from Christie, isn’t moving closer to endorsing him. One of Christie’s political operatives—on the taxpayer payroll, to be sure—sends out an email that says of the Sokolich endorsement—“We think this is a no-go for now.” Hmmm. How do you fix that problem? If you can’t get him to endorse, you punish him.
2. KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN FOR OPPORTUNITY AND YOUR MIND OPEN TO INSPIRATION—Earlier, during an unrelated trip to the George Washington Bridge, Wildstein notices something he had never seen before: The three traffic lanes that come in from Fort Lee directly into the bridge toll plaza that are guided into their own three open toll booths.“I observed three lanes, farthest to the right of the plaza, that were set off with cones, allowing traffic to come from the local streets, getting through the plaza faster than the other nine (lanes),” he told the court. And what does that mean to a mind like Wildstein’s? “This could be a potential leverage point for our dealing with the mayor,” Wildstein says he thought to himself. Well, I mean, what else would he think?
3. BOUNCE THE IDEA OFF PROFESSIONAL COLLEAGUES: It’s always good to get input from the guys on your team. So, over the next few months in 2013, Wildstein waits for opportunities to discuss the idea with Bill Baroni, the deputy executive director of the Port Authority, and Bridget Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff. In June, three months before the massive traffic jam, Wildstein says Kelly was becoming increasingly annoyed by Sokolich. So Wildstein says he told her, “If she wanted the Port Authority to close down the (Fort Lee) lanes, that could be done.” Kelly, he says, “said she’d let me know.”
4. GET A CLEAR GO AHEAD FROM SUPERIORS– On August 13, 2013, the day of a special US Senate primary election in New Jersey—(the one Christie arranges for Cory Booker to win)—Bridget Kelly, say the prosecutors, sends Wildstein an email: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
5. GET EXPERT HELP IN DEVISING THE PLAN—Here Wildstein had a lot of helpmates ready to provide him with the expertise he needed to really devastate Fort Lee—the traffic engineers who work for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Now, Wildstein says he was careful not to tell them what he was planning on doing—“I didn’t want to ask questions if the answers were something I didn’t want to hear”—but he did ask questions about what would happen if certain entrance lanes were closed. Many might ask why Wildstein would even be making such crazy talk but, apparently without wondering what Wildstein was up to, these experts at the Port Authority gave Wildstein four different scenarios for closing down the lanes. That’s where he came up with the idea of closing down just one lane and guiding it into a cash toll plaza so not even EZ-PASS could alleviate the misery. Other scenarios created the distinct possibility of car accidents as motorists dove for the few open lanes. Wildstein wanted no blood on the asphalt.
6. CAREFULLY TIME THE LAUNCH FOR MAXIMUM IMPACT—Wildstein says he was ready to go at the end of August, but, he testifies, Baroni wanted it delayed for maximum impact. How about the first day of school in September, they mused. “Fantastic” is Baroni’s response, Wildstein says. Fantastic.
7. IF THINGS GO SOUTH, DEVISE A COVER STORY—Wildstein says he came up with the “traffic study” excuse and, as we’ve heard from previous witnesses, that’s what the Port Authority put out in a public statement.That’s what Sokolich said. That’s what the governor said.
That’s the lie everyone believed. For a few hours, at least.
But it was a lie from the very beginning.
“There never was a traffic study,” said Wildstein.