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.
Baroni and Wildstein, the latter of whom maintained a secret list of favored officials, conspired inside the PA to press for the toll hikes. Along with $1.8 billion in federal and PA funds used by Christie for pet projects after he canceled a plan to build a new Hudson River transit tunnel, the toll hikes and the PA’s more recent PA’s capital spending plan created a tidal wave of new cash for Christie to spend as saw fit. In an editorial on March 4, the Star-Ledger said in an editorial that all these funds created a “piggy bank” for Christie, and it quoted John Wisniewski, chairman of the committee investigating the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge, who said, “It’s a slush fund.” According to the Star-Ledger’s news article, Baroni and Wildstein also organized a cabal inside the PA over the toll hikes:
The sources say the toll hike operation was run out of a conference room on the 15th floor of the Port Authority’s Manhattan headquarters on Park Avenue, and only those on Wildstein’s secret list had access to the room.
Only in New Jersey! Baroni and Wildstein reportedly met secretly with Christie and handful of top aides to organize the toll-hike effort. According to the Bergen Record:
A knowledgeable source said that only days later, on Aug. 3, Christie held a meeting in his office with about five top advisers, including former state Attorney General and Port Authority Chairman David Samson, Baroni and Wildstein. According to the source, Christie instructed the Port Authority officials to float the immediate $4 increase, and that he and Cuomo would reduce it to $2.
The two former PA officials interviewed by Christie Watch pointed to the Bayonne Bridge project as a key focus of Baroni and Wildstein’s efforts inside the agency. Not only did the project benefit Wolff & Samson and help Christie’s reelection effort, but within the PA it was widely believed that the project did not need to be rushed ahead, and could wait for years. Said one source:
The Bayonne Bridge was Bill’s big, big project. Rushing that through, making sure the right staff was working on it was a major, major political priority for Bill. And why? Because it’s an unnecessary project now, it probably should have waited ten years but it was a major Christie announcement that this is the way to secure the port’s future. And it tied in Christie’s relationship with the Longshoremen, and all the big port operators. [Baroni] set up his own team to do it, they answered directly to him. He would have weekly or bi-weekly meetings. He created his own task force, answerable to him, on the status of how the work was going for it, the Bayonne Bridge.
The Bayonne Bridge project had long been discussed within the PA. But, another former official said:
I recall there were meetings with Wildstein and/or Baroni about the PA position on Bayonne and they were concerned that not everyone was fully on board with the Bayonne Bridge and were still questioning.… With the arrival of the Chris Christie administration the Bayonne Bridge proposal took on a different life. It had already been a topic of conversation with people on both sides of the issue. But it took on new life once they got hold of it. Bill Baroni pulled together a group reporting to him on a direct basis on the progress of moving forward with the project.… They formed a team and informed Baroni on the progress. There were also political people, they were involved, they were part of everything.
Christie kicked off his reelection effort in 2012 at a rally with the Laborers’ International union, whose leader endorsed Christie, and cited the Bayonne Bridge project as a major reason for his support. But the union wasn’t the only beneficiary. One of the major contractors was Skanska Koch. Last April the PA awarded a $743 million contract to the firm and a partner to raise the bridge, so it could accommodate larger ships. And Skanska is represented by Wolff & Samson.
The investigation of Christie and his aides by the US Attorney for the District of New Jersey, Paul Fishman, began with an inquiry into charges that the administration threated to withhold Superstorm Sandy aid from Hoboken unless its mayor, Dawn Zimmer, backed another project that was connected to Wolff & Samson. Now, however, Fishman’s office is looking intently at the Bridgegate scandal, too. Agents from Fishman’s office have already <a data-cke-saved-href="http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/04/nyregion/federal-agents-aggressively-pursuing-bridge-inquiry-court-papers-show.html target=" href="http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/04/nyregion/federal-agents-aggressively-pursuing-bridge-inquiry-court-papers-show.html target=" _blank"="">visited the home of Bill Stepien, one of the governor’s former top political aides, and they’ve interviewed Paul Nunziato, the head of the PA police union, according to The Wall Street Journal, which added that at least three lawyers—J. Fortier Imbert, Lee M. Cortes Jr. and Vikas Khanna—from the US attorney’s office are looking into the GWB scandal.
Meanwhile, the New Jersey state legislative committee looking into the tangle of scandals has initiated a major effort to connect Bridgegate to the toll hike and tunnel cancellation issues, too.
Back in 2012, Baroni, who’s at the center of all this, was pressed by Senator Frank Lautenberg about the decision to raise the tolls. As WNYC reported at the time:
The senator was also unable to pin Baroni down on one of his key issues: what did Governor Christie know about the Port Authority’s plans for last summer’s toll hikes, and when did he know it? Baroni wouldn’t get specific. “I’m not going to talk about conversations that I have with different administration officials,” he said—spurring Lautenberg to retort: “Are you running a protection agency there?” “Excuse me?” responded Baroni, all wounded indignation.
Later, frustrated, Lautenberg told Baroni: “Your impertinence is barely tolerable.”
At that time, of course, the full story of how Wildstein and Baroni conspired with Christie to push through the toll hikes, and how the money was used in part to fund the pet projects of the PA’s chairman, wasn’t yet known.