New Jersey bridge affair sparks creation of oversight panel

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NEW YORK -- The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has formed an oversight committee to improve governance at the transportation agency, which is under scrutiny after an ally of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie closed access lanes to the authority's heavily traveled George Washington Bridge in September.

Agency chairman David Samson, a Christie appointee, and its vice chairman also apologized to drivers Wednesday for the inconvenience caused by the closings five months ago and for putting public safety at risk. "We're going to ensure what happened last September doesn't happen again," said vice chairman Scott Rechler, an appointee of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Mr. Rechler said the oversight committee wouldn't ignore state and federal investigations into September traffic jams at the foot of the bridge in Fort Lee, NJ., engineered by David Wildstein, an authority official charged with carrying out Mr. Christie's agenda. Fort Lee's Democratic mayor didn't join other mayors of his party in endorsing the Republican governor's successful re-election campaign last fall.

Mr. Rechler said the oversight committee will review the effectiveness of the authority's whistle-blower and recusal policies.

Two former Christie aides, deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly and campaign manager Bill Stepien, have said they won't comply with subpoenas issued by a New Jersey legislative panel investigating the imbroglio. Mr. Christie has cut ties to Mr. Stepien and fired Ms. Kelly, who sent an Aug. 13 e-mail to Mr. Wildstein that said: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." Mr. Wildstein replied: "Got it."

Mr. Wildstein last fall resigned from his post.

Mr. Samson, who isn't an oversight committee member, was linked to the closings by e-mails that news outlets obtained last month. In one message, Mr. Wildstein told Ms. Kelly that Mr. Samson was "helping us to retaliate" for New York traffic officials' easing of the traffic jam on what would have been its fifth day.

Mr. Christie said Jan. 9 that he spoke to Mr. Samson for two hours and believed that he knew nothing about the issue. Mr. Samson hired attorney Michael Chertoff, the former U.S. homeland security secretary and U.S. attorney in New Jersey, to represent him in the inquiry.

Mr. Samson said Wednesday that he "wholeheartedly" endorsed the oversight panel, but he didn't take questions. In a brief statement, he said he couldn't allow the Port Authority to be "mischaracterized" by the actions of a few. While he said he wanted to comment more specifically, he deferred to the state and federal probes examining the closings.

"I trust that when the facts unfold, and they will unfold, the public will have a complete picture," Mr. Samson said.

Under Democratic former Gov. James McGreevey, Mr. Samson was New Jersey's attorney general. In 2009, he was general counsel to Mr. Christie's election campaign, and was chairman of his transition committee. Mr. Christie nominated him to the port authority board in 2010.


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