On Sunday, the Port Authority’s executive director Pat Foye issued an investigation into the new report that a Port Authority police officer, with personal ties to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, was at the George Washington Bridge when access lanes were closed last September. A new paper trail indicates the officer drove David Wildstein, the Christie appointee who supervised the closings, on a tour of the area as traffic brought it to a standstill.
Foye requested the agency’s inspector general investigate the reported actions of police officers who were at the bridge during the lane closures, according to a source close to the Police Department.
Documents submitted to a New Jersey legislative committee by Wildstein also show that the officer, Lieutenant Thomas “Chip” Michaels, appears to have sent periodic text messages to Wildstein updating him on the effects of the lane closures and their crippling impact on the town of Fort Lee. In one message, on the first day of the lane closures, Michaels told Wildstein he might have an idea to “make this better.” It is not clear what he meant.
Michaels, who joined the Port Authority Police Department in 1998 according to payroll records, grew up in Christie and Wildstein’s hometown of Livingston, N.J. In recent years, he coached Christie’s son at little league hockey. Michael’s brother, Jeffrey Michaels is among the most powerful Republicans in New Jersey politics – a lobbyist whose practice has soared in value during the Christie years and who has donated heavily to pro-Christie organizations.
Michaels’ presence at the lane closures with Wildstein is an important new detail because it places another person with long-time ties to the governor, this time in the Port Authority Police Department, at the scene witnessing the traffic surge that has since come to engulf Chrstie’s administration in legal inquires.
The revelation is also important because Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich had earlier questioned the Port Authority Police Department’s actions during the closures. In a September 12 letter, Sokolich wrote to Port Authority deputy executive director Bill Baroni, a Christie appointee who has since resigned, that residents had told him that “Port Authority Police Officers are advising commuters in response to their complaints that this recent traffic debacle is the result of a decision that I, as the Mayor, recently made.” There is no evidence that Michaels was one of these officers.
In a statement released Monday, the Christie administration said the governor “has never had any conversations with either Jeff or Chip Michaels on this topic.” Christie emphatically denies taking part in or having any knowledge of the decision to close the lanes leading onto one of the busiest bridge in the world. He has said he doesn’t know why members of his inner circle would have ordered the lanes closed.
After e-mails surfaced last month revealing his top aides discussed and apparently took part in the lane closures, Christie fired his deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly and cut ties with Bill Stepien, one of his top political lieutenants. Wildstein, who served as director of interstate capital projects, resigned from the Port Authority in December. In a recent letter to the Authority, Wildstein’s lawyer asserted that “evidence exists” showing that Christie knew of the lane closures while they were happening.
The governor’s office, Christie’s reelection campaign, and multiple top aides have been subpoenaed by the state legislative committee investigating the lane closures. A separate inquiry is underway at the U.S. Attorney’s office, which is looking into the lane closures and also into allegations made by the mayor of Hoboken, N.J., that Christie officials threatened to withhold Sandy relief money from her city unless she moved forward with a redevelopment project represented by the law firm of one of Christie’s top political allies, Port Authority Chairman David Samson. The Governor’s office has denied any linkage between the project and Sandy money.
In 2010, a Newark Star-Ledger article described the Christie-Michaels family friendship as one that has endured for decades.
“We break his chops a little bit, just saying, ‘You’re the Governor?,’ looking at him laughing,” Chip Michaels told the paper. “It’s crazy. He grew up like everyone else in New Jersey. So to see him as a celebrity, it’s just really odd. But he’s the same guy. He’s a grounded guy.” At the time the article was published, Michaels was coaching one of Christie’s sons in a youth hockey league. The article described a friendship dating back to their childhoods.
Multiple attempts to reach Chip Michaels directly and through the Port Authority were unsuccessful. The Port Authority Police Department has not returned calls for comment. Messages and emails sent to Jeffrey Michaels were not responded to.
Chip Michaels’ presence at the bridge at the time of the lane closures came to light during a review of documents that were subpoenaed by the New Jersey State Assembly’s Transportation Committee late last year and released publicly in early January.
It was previously known that Wildstein and Robert Durando, the general manager of the George Washington Bridge, were present when the lane closures went into effect at 6:00 A.M. on September 9. In testimony before the Transportation Committee last December, Durando said that Wildstein had also met up with a Port Authority police lieutenant to tour the area.
“He [Wildstein] came to the facility on Monday morning,” Durando testified. “He stood at the communications desk for a little while – it’s an area with cameras to look out at the various roadways – limited view, albeit. He stayed there for a little while. He then left the facility, left the communications desk with a police lieutenant assigned to the George Washington Bridge, to ride around the facility for some period of time to see the impact on traffic.”
Among Wildstein’s subpoenaed documents from that morning is a text message exchange with someone offering to pick him up in the parking lot at the Port Authority offices at the bridge. Wildstein replied: “I’m with Bob” which presumably refers to Robert Durando. In the exchange, Wildstein told the person – whose identity was redacted by Wildstein’s lawyer – that he would be ready “around 7:30.”
In an email sent at 7:28am, which was also was included in subpoenaed materials, Wildstein informed Durando that he was leaving to “take a ride with Chip,” seemingly indicating that Chip Michaels was the person Wildstein had been texting with earlier.
The night before the closures went into effect, documents show that Chip Michaels emailed his superior, Captain Darcy Licorish, to ask if a “new traffic pattern” was going into effect the following morning. From the redactions in the documents Wildstein shared, it appears he and Michaels had previously been exchanging text messages on a possibly unrelated matter.
On the first morning of the lane closures, text messages appear to show Michaels telling Wildstein before they went for their ride-around, that “its [expletive] up here.” Then, at 8:46am – approximately 75 minutes after they had apparently left for their ride-around on the bridge – Michaels tested Wildstein that “I may hav idea to mak ths beter” (sic). The next morning, just before 9:00am, Michaels texted Wildstein again. “Local ft lee traffic disaster.”
Fort Lee Police Chief Keith Bendul told msnbc that Michaels was one of three Port Authority Police officials he reached out to on the morning of the lane closures as he unsuccessfully tried to contain the impact on the area.
Michael’s brother Jeffrey Michaels served as the chief of staff to Republican Gov. Donald DiFrancesco just over a decade ago before transitioning into lobbying. When Christie ran for governor in 2009, Jeffrey Michaels served as a campaign adviser. According to journalist Bob Ingle’s 2012 biography of Christie, it was Jeffrey Michaels who delivered the good news to Christie on election night that he had won.
In a public television interview after that election, Jeffrey Michaels was asked how close he is to Christie. “I’ve known him for a long time,” he said. “We went to high school with – we – our families knew each other from Livingston, and just stayed in close contact with him over the years and was very pleased to help his campaign out with policy.”
Once Christie became governor, Jeffrey Michaels’ newly-created lobbying venture flourished. Teaming up with Phil Norcross – who is the brother of George Norcross, the preeminent Democratic power-broker in the state and a not-so-secret ally of Christie’s – Jeffrey Michaels launched Optimus Partners L.L.C. In just one year his lobbying revenue increased by a factor of seven, according to a 2011 report in Philadelphia Inquirer.
Attempts to reach Jeffrey Michaels through his office were unsuccessful. Local reports and I.R.S. filings show that Jeffrey Michaels has donated extensively to pro-Christie groups, including $25,000 to a PAC created to push the governor’s agenda and $20,450 since October 2012 to the Republican Governors Association, the organization Christie is now heading as he explores a possible 2016 presidential bid.