BY DUSTIN RACIOPPI AND SALVADOR RIZZO BERGEN RECORD
Hearing that former Port Authority officials and a top deputy to Governor Christie allegedly caused widespread traffic jams in 2013 by closing access lanes to the George Washington Bridge was “sickening,” said the state lawmakers leading a separate investigation into the scandal.
But it was also a reminder, some lawmakers said, that there is more work for them to do.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the Middlesex County Democrat who is co-chairman of the special legislative committee investigating the lane closings, said that “there’s more to come for our committee,” and added that lawmakers in New Jersey and New York should revisit their efforts to reform the Port Authority.
“It was sickening to know that there were people who were in jobs, people with great responsibility, that chose, as we suspected, the first day of school … to punish residents of the state of New Jersey for the lack of their mayor endorsing this governor,” said state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, the committee co-chairwoman. The Teaneck Democrat’s district includes Fort Lee, the borough at the center of the traffic jams.
But it was unclear on Friday how the legislative committee would proceed, and a Republican member of the panel said it should stay on the sidelines while the federal charges play out. Otherwise, she said, legislative proceedings could turn into a “witch hunt.”
“To what end is our panel going to do anything?” said Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, R-River Vale.
David Wildstein, formerly a top executive and Christie ally in the Port Authority, said that the traffic jams on five weekday mornings were done by closing access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee. Wildstein pleaded guilty to two charges in the case in federal court in Newark.
Weinberg said the timing of the closures — overlapping with the first week of school, Yom Kippur and 9/11 remembrances — added insult to injury. Wisniewski said the scheme undermined democracy and added to public skepticism of elected officials.
“What’s also wrong is the admission here that the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs — part of the governor’s office — was engaged in seeking political endorsements for the governor’s reelection campaign. These are very troubling admissions,” Wisniewski said. “There’s more to come for our committee.”
Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood, said the charges proved that the Port Authority is in urgent need of reform. She said Christie should “stop hiding” and sign a bipartisan reform bill that passed in the New Jersey and New York legislatures last year. Christie vetoed the bill, but lawmakers are planning to renew their efforts.
“While the U.S. Attorney’s Office pursues justice for the residents of Fort Lee and the surrounding area who were victimized by the lane closures, the Legislature must work simultaneously to enact real reforms to end this culture of corruption once and for all,” Huttle said. “It’s time for Governor Christie to get onboard as well.”
A Republican member of the legislative committee, Assemblywoman Amy Handlin, R-Monmouth, agreed on that point.
“It’s so painfully obvious that until we can identify the clowns, then the Port Authority is going to continue to be a circus,” she said.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said: “These are serious charges that include the abuse of power and the betrayal of public trust. They should continue to be pursued thoroughly and those found to be responsible must be held accountable.”