Two former officials with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey described to Christie Watch a regime of secrecy, conspiracy and political favoritism inside the huge agency. They also claimed that Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, both of whom have resigned in the wake of the Bridgegate scandal, were key principals in a secret effort by Governor Chris Christie to raise tolls on the Hudson River bridges and tunnels in order to help fund a slush fund that was used to finance major construction projects that benefited the PA’s chairman, David Samson, and his law firm, Wolff & Samson. Among those projects: the raising and reconstruction of the Bayonne Bridge, a $1.2 billion project that benefited Skanska Koch, a construction firm represented by Wolff & Samson.
The projects, especially the Bayonne Bridge, were touted by Christie during his 2013 re-election campaign, and the governor used the project to win the backing of a major New Jersey labor union, the Laborers’ International Union.
The controversial toll hikes were the subject of major investigative articles in both the Newark Star-Ledger and the Bergen Record on Sunday. The articles described how Christie and New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo manipulated public opinion on the toll increase by having Christie’s aides first float very large increases in the tolls, allowing the two governors to then appear to be demanding restraint. Orchestrating the effort, the papers said, were Baroni and Wildstein.
According to one former PA insider, Baroni and Wildstein operated as political hatchet men for Christie, running what amounted to a network of spies inside the vast agency. The source told Christie Watch:
Bill [Baroni] was Mr. Politick and David [Wildstein] was the finger breaker. Bill was very affable, very articulate, very handsome, he played a sort of political role of smooth operator. And David was clearly operating at another level, where he would sort of skulk around the PA, get there early, walk around, see who was around.
The source added that there were at least four other PA officials who operated under Wildstein’s direction:
Each one of them was in their own way a David Wildstein spy in the different parts of the agency. And everyone knew it, that they were there to ensure orthodoxy. If you joked about Christie or said negative things it would get back to Wildstein. And people knew that “Uh oh, that might end my career.” And they were always, “Oh no, don’t be ridiculous that would never happen.” But it did.
They created a “climate of fear” inside the PA, the source said. And, he added, Baroni and Wildstein were often closeted with David Samson, the PA chairman and Christie’s political mentor. Samson, who has been accused of using his position as PA chairman to benefit his law firm, and whose resignation has been demanded by the Star-Ledger, was a highly engaged and activist chairman, said the source, adding that that was very unusual for a chairman. “Samson was in the office a minimum two, sometimes three times a week and [Baroni and Wildstein] would be behind closed doors with the chairman for two hours at a time,” he said.