By Brad Friedman on 1/13/2014, 7:05am PT  

Last week, we highlighted the alternate "BridgeGate" scandal theory offered by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. She reported, with circumstantial but seemingly plausible evidence, that the four-day closure of several Fort Lee, NJ access lanes to the George Washington Bridge last September might have had to do with something other than political payback for a lack of endorsement for Christie's re-election bid by the Democratic Mayor of Fort Lee.

Maddow posited that the timing of the now-infamous "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" email of August 13, 7:34am, as sent by Christie Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Ann Kelly, may have been a direct response to something other than Fort Lee Mayor Mike Sokolich's refusal to endorse Christie. Instead, Maddow said, the still-unexplained closures might have been meant as retaliation to the state Senate's Democratic Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, who has been a particular thorn in the Republican Governor's side for many years. (By way of just one example, see her attempt to pass a bill to limit travel of the NJ Governor following our exclusive release of audio tapes revealing Christie's super-secret appearance at a secret Koch Brothers gathering in Colorado in 2011.)

In support of the theory, Maddow highlighted a late afternoon press conference given by a very angry Christie on August 12th, the night before Kelly's early morning email, concerning a NJ Supreme Court nominee being stalled by Senate Democrats led by Weinberg, who happens to represent part of Fort Lee.

For what it's worth, the Democratic NJ Senate President Assembly leader, as well as several others, have found reason to doubt Maddow's theory.

But, on Sunday, in another smart example of good investigative broadcast journalism on MSNBC's UP with Steve Kornacki, the host, a former New Jersey political reporter and, incidentally, former employee of David Wildstein (the Christie appointee at the NY/NJ Port Authority who ordered the actual shutdown at the agency, according to subpoenaed email and text messages) offered yet another plausible alternate explanation for the shutdown.

This one also sounds like yet another plot straight out of HBO's The Soprano's, as it relates to, in Kornacki's words, "something of enormous economic and political significance"...

"What could have motivated a Governor to care so much about the mayor of a medium size New Jersey town --- a town that's one of 566 municipalities in the state --- to single that mayor out for this kind of treatment?," Kornacki teased. "What exactly was at stake with these closures?"

Until now, the presumption has been that the actions of Christie's office (we don't yet know for certain whether he, himself, knew about the closures) was political payback for the rejected endorsement. But, as we also noted last week, many other Democratic mayors similarly refused to endorse Christie last year, and both Sokolich and Christie have credibly downplayed any particularly hardball effort to obtain that particular endorsement before the September closures.

So, if not the endorsement, and if not an act of retribution against state Sen. Weinberg, could there be something else?

Yes, as Kornacki details, a billion dollar commercial development on 16 acres of currently-vacant --- but incredibly valuable --- land, precisely adjacent to Fort Lee's now-storied GWB access lanes. The development project has been the source of various political machinations for at least four decades, including, as Kornacki explains, as part of an infamously-attempted bribe by members of the mafia back in the 1970s, of the then Mayor of Fort Lee.

With a new deal for development of that land now finally struck, and final approval of financing for it hanging in the balance on the very week the lanes were shut down by Christie's office last September, Kornacki's reporting could also make a lot of sense.

As the MSNBC host and former New Jersey political journalist notes, this "billion dollar development" (as it was described by Mayor Sokolich in letters to the Port Authority during his frantic attempts to have the lanes re-opened during the September shutdown) has also been alluded to during this scandal both by Christie himself, when he was making light of the shutdown late last year, and by Wildstein, who included messages about a meeting Christie had with another one of his Port Authority appointees, Bill Sampson, just one week before Kelly called for "traffic problems in Fort Lee", in documents submitted by Wildstein in response to a subpoena for all documents related to the bridge closure.

Why did Wildstein view discussion about a meeting between Christie and Samson a week before the lanes were ordered closed by Christie's Deputy Chief of Staff, to be related to the bridge closure? That point remains unexplained at this time, as does the content of the Christie/Sampson meeting.

During his attempts to downplay the shutdown last year at a December 2nd, 2013 press conference, Christie also alluded to conversations with Samson:

The fact is, I didn't even know Fort Lee got three dedicated lanes until all this stuff happened. And I think we should review that entire policy, cause I don't know why Fort Lee needs three dedicates lanes, to tell you the truth. ... And I've told Chairman Samson this, that we should look at this. Cause I don't know why one town gets three lanes. One lane, maybe. Three lanes? For one town? I don't quite get it.

"I've told Chairman Samson this." Is that what he discussed with Samson, a former NJ Attorney General, when, as Wildstein's texts highlight, the Governor met with the Port Authority board member just one week before the lane closures were ordered?

Samson is still at the Port Authority where, as Christie explained in his marathon 2-hour presser last Thursday, he still enjoys the Governor's confidence. "I'm confident that he had no knowledge of this," Christie said that day about Samson, "based upon our conversations and his review of this information." (Christie had also been confident of supposed assurances from other top members of his Administration, like Kelly, that they knew nothing about this affair, until the subpoenaed email and text messages came to light and proved otherwise.)

Here's Kornacki's theory about how the 16-acre development near the river's edge and adjacent to Fort Lee's GWB access lanes may be at the center of this still mysterious scandal...

After laying the theory out, Kornacki was then joined by New Jersey reporter Brian Murphy --- who is also a former employee of one-time Garden State political blogger David Wildstein --- to examine the viability of the "billion dollar development" in Fort Lee as having played a central role, somehow, in the bridge lane shutdown.

"If you wanted to try to muscle in, in some way, to get a piece of that, boy, this is one way to do that," says Murphy. "These are smart gentlemen. It's just hard for me to believe that people put themselves on the line for something like an endorsement."


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