Through interviews and in newly released documents, MSNBC has learned previously unknown information about the George Washington Bridge access lane closures in Fort Lee, New Jersey orchestrated by Governor Chris Christie’s aides and appointees – including the intended duration of the town’s traffic nightmare.
Handwritten notes released Wednesday by the borough of Fort Lee show that on the first morning of the lane closures, Port Authority Police Lt. Thomas “Chip” Michaels told Fort Lee Police Chief Keith Bendul that toll lane changes had been ordered by Port Authority executives as a “test” to “relieve” congestion on the Interstate-95 approaches to the bridge at the expense of Fort Lee and surrounding towns. The exercise was to last for a month, Bendul’s notes about his conversation with Michaels show. In telephone interviews with MSNBC last week, Bendul clarified and confirmed this interaction with Michaels.
MSNBC reported Sunday that Michaels drove David Wildstein, a Christie-appointed Port Authority official who has since resigned, on a survey of the crippling gridlock on the first morning of the lane closures and continued to trade text messages with him into the second day.
Bendul further revealed to MSNBC that Michaels was the first Port Authority official he contacted about the lane closures.
Also among the documents released Wednesday was an exchange of text messages between Michaels and Bendul on the first day of the lane closures, in which Michaels suggested sending cars toward the area affected by the lane closures. The text came less than an hour after Michaels texted to Wildstein he had an idea to “make this better.”
A review of additional documents indicates that Michaels may have known about the planned month-long duration of the lane closures sooner than other high-ranking Port Authority officials.
Emails subpoenaed by the N.J. Legislature show that Robert Durando, manager of the George Washington Bridge, learned that the lane closures would be continued into the following day “at a minimum” almost six hours after Michaels told Fort Lee officials that the changes would be in place for a month.
And while Michaels told Bendul that Port Authority executives in Jersey City were behind the lane closures, Cedrick Fulton, director for Tunnels, Bridges, and Terminals at the Port Authority’s Jersey City offices, actually learned of their day-to-day duration from Durando.
Although the lanes were closed for four mornings from September 9 to 12 before being re-opened by Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye, a New York appointee, it has never been made clear how long Wildstein and Bill Baroni, Christie’s top appointee at the agency, planned to restrict access to the bridge from Fort Lee. Thus far, only the notes and our interviews with Bendul about his conversation with Michaels show that the lane closures were planned to last for a month.
Multiple attempts to reach Michaels and Durando were unsuccessful. A Port Authority spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Bendul’s notes were released Wednesday by the Fort Lee borough clerk among thousands of other pages of telephone logs, police and ambulance records, and other documents in response to a public records request filed by Randy Mastro, an attorney with the firm of Gibson, Dunn, Crutcher, who has been hired by the governor’s office at state expense to conduct an internal investigation into the still-festering scandal.
On February 10, Mastro filed an Open Public Records Act request with Fort Lee seeking records dating back to January 2013 regarding Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich’s contacts with the Christie Administration and the governor’s re-election campaign, as well as contact with the Port Authority regarding toll lane allocations.
Mastro also sought and received copies of all written queries filed by the media about the lane closures from September to the present. It’s unclear why the media queries were relevant to Mastro’s investigation, since they shed no light on the conduct of the Christie administration officials who directed the closures.