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Last Fall, Mayor Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee, a small town in New Jersey just over the busy George Washington Bridge that links the state to Manhattan declined to say if he would endorse Governor Chris Christie for reelection as Governor of the State of New Jersey. Christie won any way in November, but then some strange things started to happen.
Last September, for several days almost all of the traffic lanes that link Fort Lee to the bridge were blanked off with pylons causing massive traffic jams backing up for miles, purportedly it was claimed for a “traffic study”. Commuters were in chaos for hours at a time, ambulances could not get through and one emergency patient even died. The busy I-95 highway is a strategic interstate artery that carries millions of vehicles every month across the Hudson River
It later turned out that there was no traffic study but what there was a prima facie case of political revenge from the Governor’s office to teach the little town’s Mayor how things were done in New Jersey; simply put he should have endorsed the Governor.
At a certain point, as often happens in the United States, policies of denial are worn down and falsified by evidence from emails that are eventually produced when subpoenaed in a process that seems as inevitable as it is long drawn-out.
And so it has turned out in this case too, with a “smoking gun” email surfacing early on that had been sent by the Governor’s Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly to David Wildstein at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a New Jersey political appointee to the agency. His title was Director of Interstate Capital Projects, and it seems he was a close friend of the Governor during High School. The email said, “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee”. Wildstein replied simply “Got it”.
The Port Authority is a unique quasi-independent joint New York – New Jersey entity charged with managing the two states’ ports, airports, bridges and also the tunnels and rail lines that cross under the Hudson River between the two states.
George Wasington Bridge – seen from the New York side/Wikipedia
Political reliability rather than professional competence has always been the hallmark of its bloated ranks of administrators. David Samson is the current Chairman of the Port Authority, and he is actually a well regarded lawyer who was appointed by Governor Christie to the job. The Executive Director, who actually runs the institution, Patrick Foye , was appointed by Governor Cuomo of New York. The Deputy Director Bill Baroni allegedly ordered the Executive Director not to be told about the traffic screw ups, which were being disguised internally as a “traffic study”. Eventually he found out anyway and then, furious, ordered the lanes immediately opened again – to the annoyance of the New Jersey representatives for, seemingly, daring to interfere with their side of the bridge!
Who knew what, and when did they know it has been the favourite political game of “gotcha” in American life since Watergate during Nixon’s Presidency. As With Bill Clinton and a long line of others it’s not the crime it’s the cover up stupid…
There is now an unholy row going on therefore, led by the Democratically controlled New Jersey State Assembly with subpoenas flying around all over the place.
Bridget Ann Kelly has now been summarily sacked by Governor Christie as his Deputy Chief of Staff. The Governor himself claims of course that he was lied to and knew nothing about the bridge closings at all. “I may be many things” he said, adding somewhat disingenuously, “but I am not a bully” … The Deputy Director of the Port Authority Bill Baroni, the Governor’s pal, has also been forced out of his job, and there may be more to follow.
As a good lawyer himself, David Samson knows the importance of having good counsel and has now hired some of his own to represent him in the ensjuing fall out.
Michael Cherkoff used to be in charge of the Department of Homeland Security in the Administration of George Bush which was set up after 9/11. Currently he is a partner with the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Covington & Burling, one of the capital’s most prestigious law firms. In addition to being Homeland Security Secretary under President Bush, he had previously been named U.S. Attorney for New Jersey in the early 1990s by his father President George H.W. Bush.
Since leaving the Department and returning to private law practice, Cherkoff also provides advice on security matters to many of his clients. The Port Authority has already been using his services on such general security issues. Indeed Cherkoff runs a separate security consulting firm, the Chertoff Group, for precisely this purpose.
Its clients have included both the Department of Homeland Security and the Port Authority. It seems the Port Authority has to date paid Chertoff US$300, 000, in May 2011, to review the Port Authority’s security command structure and then another $1.2 million, in June 2012, to help hire a chief security officer after the firm recommended creating the position.
Most likely it was money very well spent. Obviously terrorism issues are key questions for strategic sites such as bridges, tunnels, airports and, of course the World Trade Center itself, which is owned by the Port Authority and only leased to developers under long term leases.
In case there should be any legal chinks in his own actions therefore David Samson has now hired Michael Cherkoff to represent him personally on all matters pertaining to “Bridgegate”, as the scandal is now inevitably known.
Until this all blew up Governor Christie was a leading candidate to become a front-runner in the next Republican Presidential candidate selection process. That is already looking increasingly at risk as the scandal unfolds. Samson is apparently very close to Governor Christie, so it looks as though they will now be toughing it out together. Governor Christie has also taken his own counsel on board, just in case.
Democratic New Jersey Assemblyman John Wisniewski who chairs the Assembly special committee investigating the September 9th – 13th lane closures at the George Washington Bridge, has already queried Samson’s hiring of Cherkoff.
“It raises concerns about whether they have a conflict of interest, ” Wisniewski said.
Investigators have begun to look more carefully at the potential role Samson may have played in the issue after his name cropped up in several of the documents subpoenaed last month by the Assembly. David Samson was one of 18 people, along with two agencies, who have now been issued subpoenaed by the Assembly to attend the hearings.
About Michael Cherkoff
Michael Cherkoff, who is age 60, was born and raised in New Jersey. His father was Rabbi Gershon Chertoff, a talmud scholar and leader of the congregation B’nai Israel in Elizabeth New Jersey. His mother is Livia Chertoff, an Israeli citizen who was the very first Air Hostess for El Al, according to her Wikipedia entry.
After studying at Harvard he graduated from Harvard Law School in 1978. After clerking for the United States Supreme court Justice William Brennan he late worked as a prosecutor in New York for Rudy Giuliani on many mafia and political corruption cases.
In 1990 he became the US Attorney for new Jersey, appointed by the elder President Bush, returning to private practice at Latham & Watkins in 1994 as a partner.
Bush nominated Chertoff to the post of Secretary fro Homeland Security, replacing tom Ridge, in January 2005, citing his experience with post-9/11 terror legislation. He was unanimously approved for the position by the United States Senate on February 15, 2005 a post he held until the Obama administration came into office at the end of 2008 when he returned again to private practice.