GWB scandal: Fort Lee mayor now says Christie campaign courted him for endorsement
Friday, February 7, 2014 Last updated: Friday February 7, 2014, 9:37 PM
BY MIKE KELLY
Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, in his most extensive comments yet, said Governor Christie’s aides courted him for over two years with gifts from the Port Authority to his town — like shuttle buses, pothole repair and emergency radios — as well as a personal tours of the 9/11 Memorial in a effort to win his endorsement.
But when Sokolich did not volunteer his support, he says he was punished by paralyzing traffic jams on Fort Lee’s streets leading to the George Washington Bridge that were ordered by Christie’s appointees at the Port Authority during portions of five days last September.
Sokolich’s comments, in a two-hour interview in his office at Fort Lee borough hall, represent his harshest criticism yet of the Christie administration — and the first time he has directly linked last September’s gridlock to his refusal to break from his Democratic party and endorse Christie, a Republican.
And while Sokolich said he was never told directly that Port Authority help was connected to Christie’s reelection, he said he came to see it as a quid pro quo after emails surfaced last month indicating officials in the Christie campaign, the Port Authority and the governor’s campaign were disappointed in him.
In one email, as controversy first brewed over whether Fort Lee’s gridlock was political payback, the governor’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, referred to the mayor as “an idiot.”
On Friday, the governor’s office attacked Sokolich’s new comments, citing a variety of previous statements by him in which he said he did not feel pressured and did not blame Christie for the gridlock that has since blossomed into a major scandal that is the focus of investigations by federal prosecutors and by a state legislative committee.
“What the mayor is now claiming, it’s a direct and absolute contradiction of his public comments up to this point,” said Kevin Roberts, a Christie spokesman.
Roberts also said Sokolich’s endorsement was never considered a priority and pointed to Christie’s previous comment that the mayor was “never on my radar screen.”
Sokolich said he has decided to forward now after much reflection and a desire to set the record straight.
“I’ve refrained from talking about it because it sounds self-serving,” Sokolich said, adding that he is especially disappointed that the Christie administration has not acknowledged how much pressure was placed on him for an endorsement.“I’ve been open-minded with this,” Sokolich said. “I’m the one who’s taking the governor at his word. I’m the one that’s trying to be a good guy. I have all the reason in the world to be a snotty bastard.”
Sokolich said efforts to gain his endorsement began nearly two years ago and included a personal tour of the 9/11 Memorial plaza in lower Manhattan by David Wildstein, the Port Authority executive who orchestrated the traffic jams.
Sokolich said two cousins, visiting from Croatia in October 2012, asked to visit the 9/11 Memorial Plaza. So Sokolich telephoned the Port Authority, as he had been told by the agency’s deputy executive director, Bill Baroni if he ever needed a favor.
Baroni’s instructions were explicit, Sokolich said. “You got a problem, call us,” he recalled Baroni saying. “We’re your guys.”A few days later, Sokolich and his cousins were given a personal tour of the plaza by Wildstein, then the Port Authority’s director of interstate capital projects.
“I’ve been told to be nice to you,” Sokolich remembers Wildstein saying during that tour.
“If he said it once, he said it 25 times,” Sokolich said, adding that the tour lasted no more than 20 minutes.
At the time, Sokolich said that he found Wildstein’s comments to be odd. But now, upon reflection, he said the brief tour was also part of the courtship for his political allegiance in 2013.
Wildstein’s attorney, Alan Zegas, did not respond to request for comment.
Sokolich said he was also disappointed that Christie has recently tried to distance himself from him. He said Christie invited Sokolich and a handful of other mayors, including Hoboken’s Dawn Zimmer, to have lunch at Drumthwacket, the governor’s mansion in Princeton “about four years ago.” Sokolich said he also attended at least one Christmas party at the mansion, hosted by Christie.
“I’m not saying it’s significant, but this is a guy who is saying he has no idea who I am?” Sokolich said of Christie.
The governor’s office said Friday that it could not confirm that the Drumthwacket lunch took place. But Zimmer’s office said both she and Sokolich were there.
In the wide-ranging interview in an borough hall office decorated with several photos of the George Washington Bridge, Sokolich said he had was privately worried for months that his lack of endorsement could hamper state approval of permits for a $1 billion high rise development in Fort Lee. He also said he did not initially see how a variety of election operatives, administration officials and the Port Authority were all working together to gain his support.
“Things don’t hit me immediately,” Sokolich said. “I signed up for this job to build Little League fields and stabilize taxes,”
As Sokolich realized he was being courted, however, he came to see himself as trying to straddle a political tightrope.
On one hand, he said he did not want to anger the Christie administration by ignoring overtures from the campaign and possibly cause the administration to hold back on help for his borough. On the other hand, he did not want to desert the Democratic Party and endorse a Republican governor with presidential ambitions.
“I’m very loyal to the Democratic party,” Sokolich said. “I am as loyal as loyal can be. It’s the Democratic voters that put me in office. I’m not going to walk up and down the streets of my town and have to duck people.”
He said Matt Mowers, a political operative for the Christie campaign — who had previously worked in the governor’s intergovernmental affairs office which was the chief liaison to towns — would meet with him and tell him about other Democrats who endorsed Christie. On at least three occasions, Sokolich said that Mowers brought up the subject of Sokolich’s possible endorsement.
“He would say, ‘What are your thoughts?’,” Sokolich said of Mowers “He would say, ‘What do you think?’ Or he would say, “Is this something you would consider?’”
“Some people might interpret that as a direct request,” Sokolich said. “I don’t. I always viewed it as a gradual courting. I always viewed it as a way to ask so that there was always plausible deniability.”
In the end, Sokolich never said he would not endorse Christie. He said he kept the Christie campaign in doubt because he was afraid that an outright refusal to endorse the governor would delay state approvals for traffic patterns near a $1 billion high rise redevelopment plan in the borough.
“I never gave it a definite no,” he said. “I didn’t want to tempt fate. I needed things out of the governor.”
Mowers, now the executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Committee, also did not respond for a request for comment.
Sokolich said he eventually came to see his contacts with Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni as part of the overall courting.
Baroni, a close ally of Christie, resigned from his post along with Wildstein in December, as criticism mounted about their involvement in the traffic jams which were caused when two of three access lanes to the George Washington Bridge were shut down.
Sokolich said he telephoned or met with Baroni “at least once a month” during Baroni’s tenure at the Port Authority. He said many of their conversations often centered on how the bridge affected Fort Lee’s traffic and how the Port Authority could offer help.
Sokolich said he recalls Baroni telling him on several occasions: “You got a New Jersey problem, call us.”
He said the Port Authority offered a variety of gifts, sometimes with Christie’s backing.
In a May 25, 2012 letter to Port Authority Chairman David Samson, Christie urged the agency to appropriate $162,000 for shuttle buses for Fort Lee to transport residents to a Hudson River ferry in nearby Edgewater and across the George Washington Bridge to a Manhattan bus terminal.
“Thank you for your attention to this matter,” Christie wrote in the letter which was obtained by The Record.
In a Nov. 9, 2010 letter to Baroni, Sokolich complained that bridge traffic had “completely gridlocked” Fort Lee on “20 occasions over the past 40 days.”
Sokolich added the traffic jams caused by overflow from roads leading to the bridge “cripples our entire community.”
An attorney for Baroni, Michael Himmel, declined comment.
Looking back, Sokolich says he can now see how his complaints may have planted seeds for the orchestrated gridlock that took place last September. He also feels, however, that his complaints helped lead to the Port Authority’s gifts of shuttle buses and other amenities to the town.
But Sokolich said he never felt he had to give back anything in return.
“I never viewed it as a quid pro quo being attached to it because we’re the host community to the busiest bridge in the world,” he said. “I mean geez, you got to help us a little bit.”