The inspector general of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is investigating what its police officers knew about traffic-inducing lane closures onto the George Washington Bridge, adding to state and federal probes into New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration over allegations of political motivations.
On Sunday, MSNBC's Steve Kornacki reported that a Port Authority police officer with long-time ties to Gov. Christie drove and exchanged text messages with one of the political appointees, David Wildstein, as he was overseeing the traffic snarl last September. Port Authority police Lt. Thomas "Chip" Michaels grew up with Christie in Livingston, N.J., and in recent years coached one of the governor's children in youth hockey. Michaels is posted to the PAPD's George Washington Bridge command. Michaels' brother, Jeffrey, is a powerful Republican lobbyist in Trenton who was a high-level adviser to Christie's successful 2009 campaign.
Port Authority executive director Pat Foye, appointed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, ordered the latest investigation after learning of the connection between Michaels and Christie. Foye was also concerned by a Bergen Record report Sunday on comments Port Authority police officers made to those stuck in the traffic jams. Multiple commuters recalled being told to call Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich to complain, something Sokolich wrote about in a September 12 letter to then-deputy director Bill Baroni, another Christie appointee who has since resigned.
On Monday, Christie issued a statement making it clear that he has a relationship with both men, while claiming that he has never discussed the lane closures with them. "The Governor has never had any conversations with either Jeff or Chip Michaels on this topic," a Christie spokesman said in an email.
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 re-election 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 favored by the administration. The governor’s office has denied any linkage between the project and Sandy money.
Christie is expected to address the issue in a town hall meeting Tuesday in Middletown, N.J.--the first he has held since revelations of the bridge closures. The Republican governor will be joined by top cabinet members to discuss how the administration plans to roll out the second round of federal recovery funds to residents affected by Hurricane Sandy.
Editor's note: The characterization of Gov. Christie's relationship with the Michaels brothers has been updated to reflect that the governor's office does not make clear whether they were friends. Christie’s office has declined to comment on the governor’s relationship with Thomas “Chip” Michaels, or disclose whether they have spoken in the last six months.