A year and a half into a once in a century mass death event we are still held captive by a deadly pandemic and our regional scourge of endemic political corruption that enables Gov. Cuomo to remain in power. Free of shame, he can attack the very same Attorney General, who just months earlier he asked to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct that had been made against him.
The independent investigators charged with conducting the Attorney General’s probe concluded that from 2013 through 2020 “he sexually harassed multiple women” and violated state and federal law in a spree of “inappropriate groping, kissing, and hugging” while creating “a hostile work environment rife with fear and intimidation.”
We really can’t really blame Mr. Cuomo for reverting to Trump like tactics now to undermine the rule of law and representative democracy by casting aspersions on the efforts of New York State Attorney General Letitia James to hold him accountable.
He came of age in an era where both New Jersey and New York have had a hard time rooting out political corruption or making even convictions stick. And toughing it out over howling public outrage, like Mr. Cuomo is doing, can have its rewards in a post-shame world.
Consider former Gov. Jim McGreevey’s gambit August 12, 2004, when he admitted to actions that amounted to a massive breach of the public trust, yet he opted to stick around until Nov. 15. That robbed the electorate of the chance for a special election by handing the Governorship to his fellow Democrat and then Senate President Richard J. Codey.
“I realize the fact of this affair and my own sexuality if kept secret leaves me, and most importantly the governor’s office, vulnerable to rumors, false allegations, and threats of disclosure. So, I am removing these threats by telling you directly about my sexuality,” he declared.
Nowhere in the mea culpa did Mr. McGreevey apologize for appointing his unqualified lover to a $110,000 a year job as New Jersey’s Homeland Security adviser nor for trying to hand Charles Kushner, a real estate developer and his single biggest campaign donor, a seat on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, with an eye towards making him chairman.
Of course, Mr. Kushner, a prolific Democratic party donor, would plead guilty in 2004 to 16 federal counts including tax fraud, witness retaliation and making false statements to the Federal Election Commission. On Christmas Eve President Trump pardoned Mr. Kushner, who was Trump’s son-in-law Jared’s father.
For years, there’s been a similar bipartisan stench given off by the Port Authority, an unaccountable sovereign duchy of self-dealing, that has on occasion been weaponized against the public that pays dearly to use its bridges and tunnels it paid to build.
During Gov. Christie tenure, he and Gov. Cuomo, had a kind of compact to align themselves politically when it came to handling the bi-state agency. According to multiple reports they coordinated what was in essence feigned outrage over the Port Authority’s 2011 proposal to raise tolls by 50 percent which set the stage for them to ‘ride to the rescue’ of motorists with just $1.50 hike.
Over a period of days in September of 2013, that included the anniversary of 9/11, when the Port Authority police should have been on the lookout for potential terrorists, they were executing a scheme dreamed up by Christie partisans to punish the Democratic Mayor of Fort Lee by closing lanes feeding into the George Washington Bridge.
The politically induced traffic coronary delayed emergency vehicle responses and paralyzed traffic on the first day of school in the Bergen County town on the Hudson.
For months, the Wall Street Journal, along with the Record, pressed to get to the bottom of the story. The Port Authority said initially it was all part of a legitimate traffic study. It wasn’t until January 2014, when the media published an email from Bridget Kelly to then Port Authority official and Christie operative David Wildstein that it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” that the traffic study cover story was fully discredited.
It was still enough of a live issue that U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, then chair of the Commerce Committee wrote to the bi-state agency taking it to task for providing no proof of an actual traffic study.
Rockefeller blasted the agency for the lane shut down, writing it was “unconscionable that anyone would block commercial traffic and risk the safety of thousands on our interstate highway system in this way.”
In response, months after the lane closures the Port Authority was still obfuscating by responding the lane closures were “aberrational events” and that it still did “not have many of the facts as to the motivations behind actions taken at the GWB.”
On the surface, the narrative that emerged was that David Wildstein conspired with Gov. Christie partisans to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, for not endorsing Christie’s re-election with four days of lane closures on the George Washington Bridge from Sept. 9 to 13, 2013.
Historically, in our region we have relied on U.S. Attorneys to bring corruption cases that an appointed New Jersey State Attorney General and popularly elected New York County prosecutors are often reluctant to bring.
Ultimately prosecuting the Bridgegate caper would fall to New Jersey’s U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman who zeroed in on Bill Baroni, former Port Authority executive director and Bridget Kelly, Christie’s former chief of staff with the help of Wildstein who opted to become a cooperating witness.
Fishman got convictions against Kelly and Baroni, yet they were ultimately over turned and Christie was never charged despite the prosecution position during the trial that he was aware of the plot as it was unfolding.
And as was widely reported at the time, and reaffirmed in testimony during the criminal trial, the Port Authority police were actively involved in executing the scheme.
Senior police officers were aware of the plan to alter traffic before it happened, and when rank and file officers raised concerns about the problems it was causing at the time, they were told to keep it to themselves. In September 2014 the Bergen Record reported that during the lane closures in 2013, when Port Authority police officers used their radios to communicate that the altered traffic pattern was creating “hazardous conditions” on local Fort Lee roads, their Port Authority supervisors told them to “shut up.”
In the midst of the lane closures, which crippled his city and ruined the first day of school for Fort Lee’s school children, Mayor Mark Sokolich appealed via email for Baroni’s help.
“Adding insult to injury, many members of the public have indicated to me that the Port Authority [police] officers are advising commuters in response to their complaints that this recent traffic debacle is the result of a decision that I, as the Mayor made,” Sokolich wrote to Baroni.
It’s important to put this in the context that Christie was in the heated portion of his re-election campaign against Senator Barbara Buono and the closures were a hot issue. Had the Port Authority come clean it could have been a very different race.
At the time, Gov. Cuomo insisted he only knew about Bridgegate based on what he read in the newspaper. But WNYC reported that based on emails they got through a Freedom of information request “Cuomo and his top aides” were “responding instantly and far more intensely to the abrupt lane closures on the George Washington Bridge than had previously been known” which helped “keep a lid on the scandal.”
In 2013, the Wall Street Journal reported Christie had called Cuomo to complain that Foye “was pressing too hard to get to the bottom of why the number of toll lanes onto the bridge from Fort Lee, NJ, was cut from three to one.” The Journal attributed its story to “a person familiar with the matter.”
At the criminal trial three people testified that Gov. Cuomo was part of the effort to cover up the real origins of the Fort Lee lane closures after a conversation with Gov. Christie where the New Jersey Governor asked his New York counterpart to have Pat Foye, Cuomo’s top official at the agency to “stand down.”
At the time, Cuomo’s press operation pressed back hard on those stories.
NJ.com reported that Foye, who ordered the lanes reopened and “suspected foul play was involved” still issued a press release claiming the Port Authority was conducting “a week of study” and would “review those results and determine the best traffic patterns at the GWB.
Under oath at the criminal trial, Foye admitted he issued what he knew to be a false press statement and that the agency used the excuse of an internal probe to stave of reporters’ questions a month after the internal probe was over.
That was invaluable cover for the Christie crew.
Artfully controlling the narrative to blunt the advance of the reporting on the scandal didn’t hurt Foye’s career. In 2017, Cuomo tapped to be the CEO and chairman of the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Members of the Port Authority Police Department even surfaced in what prosecutors allege was the subsequent criminal conspiracy to cover up the initial lane-closure plot. In November 2013, Baroni testified before the state legislature that the concept of the traffic study was first raised by Paul Nunziato, Port Authority Police Benevolent Association president.
In 2014 The New York Times reported that Nunziatio and Wildstein had met regularly from 2012, leading up to when Nunziato delivered the endorsement from his 1,500-member union for Christie’s re-election. (Under Christie’s tutelage the ranks of the Port Authority police grew from 1,500 to 2,000 by March 2014.)
When Nunziato took questions from reporters after a December 2014 Port Authority commissioners’ meeting, he reaffirmed that he had originated the George Washington Bridge-Fort Lee traffic study. A month earlier the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association president said in a statement that speculation that politics were behind the George Washington Bridge lane closures was like speculating on the possible location of Jimmy Hoffa’s body.
Nunziato’s lawyer Charles J. Sciarra told The New York Times his client had nothing to do with the closures. “My client was trying to be supportive of people who were supportive of his union; he never intended to mislead.”
In May 2015, Wildstein pled guilty to two federal felony counts but his convictions were vacated by a federal judge last year, after the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the convictions of Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former chief of staff and Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority.
So, Fishman’s targeted prosecution was a very expensive flop. But one thing he did succeed in doing was keeping sealed the list of unindicted Bridgegate co-conspirators which has remained off-limits to the media and the public to this very day.
This is not Hollywood. Sometimes the bad guys get away.
And sometimes they install Fishman, who happens to be Cuomo’s outside Counsel defending him.
It’s what happens in an authoritarian state where bullies hanging tough mold the collective reality as power protects power.