David Wildstein (born September 1961)[note 1] is an American businessman, Republican Party politician, political blogger, and the founder of the New Jersey political news website Politicker Network. A former mayor of Livingston, New Jersey, he served as a senior official in the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey during the administration of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie until 2013, when Wildstein resigned in the midst of a scandal involving traffic lanes closures. On May 1, 2015 he pled guilty in federal district court in Newark, New Jersey to two counts of conspiracy as part of a plea-agreement.
Early life and early political career
Wildstein grew up in Livingston. He attended Livingston High School in the late 1970s, where he was a classmate (one year ahead) of future governor Chris Christie. Christie has said that although he knew who Wildstein was and that both of them had worked on Thomas Kean's campaign for governor in 1977, Christie and Wildstein were not close acquaintances in high school: "We didn't travel in the same circles in high school. You know, I was the class president and athlete. I don't know what David was doing during that period of time". Christie and Wildstein were both members of the school's baseball team; Christie was a catcher, Wildstein was the team's statistician. In an interview published in 2014, the team's coach recalled that Wildstein was "a very quiet, unassuming, brilliant kid" with "a brilliant mind for numbers and figures", although not a skilled player.
Wildstein's lifelong involvement with politics began early. At age 12, he was mentioned by a local newspaper as having left a group backing one congressional candidate in order to throw his support behind the candidate's opponent, Thomas Kean Sr., then a member of the state Assembly and a neighbor of Wildstein. (Kean, a Republican, would later become governor of New Jersey, serving from 1982 to 1990.) At 16, Wildstein filed a lawsuit in a failed attempt to get on the ballot as a member of the county Republican Committee. The following year, he ran in the local school board election, although he was legally too young to have served on the school board.[note 2] Still a high school student at the time, Wildstein was accused by his social studies teacher of having deceptively encouraged his teacher to sign a letter of support that was published in the local newspaper. They later issued a joint statement describing the episode as a misunderstanding.
After graduating high school, Wildstein attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C., working on a presidential campaign and serving as a political consultant while in college. He served as executive director of the New Jersey Legislature’s Legislative Caucus on Israel to deal with Jewish-related foreign policy, according to a 1983 JTA report.
At 23, he was elected to a four-year term on the town council, serving from 1985 to 1988. He then served as mayor of Livingston from 1987 to 1988. Some considered his personal style in local politics at the time aggressive and combative, and he alienated even some members of his own party. He was very outspoken on some issues, including his opposition to low-income housing in Livingston, which he said was wasting the county government's money. After placing poorly in a primary election, he vowed to stay out of local politics in the future.
He began working as a top executive in the family's Georgia-based textile manufacturing business, Apache Mills, one of the country's largest floor mat manufacturers. Wildstein worked at the company from 1988 to 2007.
PolitickerNJ.com and "Wally Edge" blog
In 2000, while still working at the family business, Wildstein secretly founded a New Jersey political news site called PoliticsNJ.com (since renamed PolitickerNJ.com), which he ran with the financial support of his friend New Jersey real estate mogul Jared Kushner, who publishes the New York Observer. Wildstein wrote a blog on New Jersey politics for the site using the pseudonym "Wally Edge", after the former New Jersey Republican governor and US senator Walter Edge. The site published news, political commentary, and rumors based on anonymous tips from government officials and political operatives. Wildstein's true identity as the blog's author was only revealed in 2010 when he was appointed by the Christie administration to work at Port Authority.
Several journalists credit Wildstein with having helped launch their careers while they worked at PolitickerNJ.com, including Politico reporter Alex Isenstadt; James Pindell, the political director at WMUR in New Hampshire; and Steve Kornacki, who hosts a cable television political news commentary program on MSNBC. Kornacki has said of Wildstein, "I've never met anybody ... with more thorough institutional knowledge of New Jersey politics."
Port Authority tenure
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is a congressionally-authorized joint venture between the states of New Jersey and New York which manages much of the regional transportation infrastructure, including bridges, tunnels, airports, and seaports. Senior staff at the agency are appointed by the governors of the two states.
In 2010, Wildstein was appointed by newly installed Governor Chris Christie's senior representative at the Port Authority, Bill Baroni, to serve as the agency's Director of Interstate Capital Projects, making Wildstein the second highest-ranking Christie political appointee among the agency's executives, after Baroni himself. This position had never existed at the Port Authority prior to Wildstein's appointment and had no job description, but drew a $150,000 per year salary.
The Record's Shawn Boburg, who wrote a March 2012 profile about Wildstein based on interviews with then-current and past Port Authority colleagues, described Wildstein as the governor's "eyes and ears" at the agency, watching the entire agency, as one informant put it, for "strict adherence to the Christie agenda". Boburg has said Wildstein "made a point to stay in the shadows and be the person directing the show from behind the curtains", and that "he was known for walking the halls, monitoring other executives. He was wildly feared and admired for his work ethic, his intelligence, and his political savvy."
Fort Lee bridge lane closure scandal
From September 9 through September 13, 2013, two of the three lanes providing local access to a Fort Lee entrance to the bridge were closed on Wildstein's orders without notification of local government officials, emergency responders, or other Port Authority officials, resulting in massive traffic congestion and delays for the community of Fort Lee. Some local officials and political commentators speculated that Wildstein and associates in the Christie administration had ordered the lane closures as political retribution against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, or other members of the Democratic Party who represent Fort Lee.
In early December 2013, just days before the state legislature was scheduled to begin hearings to investigate the lanes closures, Wildstein announced his resignation, saying he had planned to leave the agency the following year but "the Fort Lee issue has been a distraction, and I think it's better to move on earlier". Under subpoena from the legislature ordering him to produce documents related to the lane closures, Wildstein turned over emails and text messages that showed Christie administration aides discussing the lane closures. In an eight-word email, Christie's deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, wrote to Wildstein in August 2013, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee", to which Wildstein replied, "Got it".
When New York appointees at the Port Authority, who had not been notified that the lanes would be closed, reopened the lanes, Wildstein told Kelly that the Port Authority's chair, also an appointee of Christie, was "helping us to retaliate." In an email exchange about fallout over the lane closures between Wildstein and Christie's campaign chief and closest political confidante, Bill Stepien, Wildstein wrote, "It will be a tough November for this little Serbian," apparently referring to Fort Lee's Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich (who is actually of Croatian, not Serbian, ancestry).
Called to testify before a state Assembly committee investigating the lanes closure in January 2014, Wildstein invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refused to answer the committee members' questions. The committee found him in contempt and referred the case for prosecution. Wildstein's attorney Alan Zegas said that Wildstein would answer any questions if granted immunity from prosecution.
On January 31, 2014, a letter from counsel for Wildstein alleged that, in contrast to Christie's public assertions, the governor knew of the lane closures while they were happening in September 2013 and suggested that Wildstein had documents to prove his claims.
On May 1, 2015 he pled guilty in federal district court in Newark, New Jersey to two counts of conspiracy as part of a plea-agreement. Sentencing was scheduled for August 2015 but it is likely to be delayed until his co-conspirators are tried.
- Glueck, Katie; Schulteis, Emily (January 9, 2014). "The Christie aides brought down by Bridgegate". Politico.
- Ted Sherman; Strunsky, Steve (December 15, 2013). "Port Authority scandal: the rising star and the mystery man inside a growing investigation". The Star-Ledger.
- Rokus, Brian (January 9, 2014). "Who is David Wildstein?". CNN.
- MacGillis, Alec (January 10, 2014). "Chris Christie barely knew David Wildstein? Their old coach says different". The New Republic.
- Boburg, Shawn (March 4, 2012). "Ex-blogger is Governor Christie's eyes, ears inside the Port Authority". The Record.
- "Written testimony of Bill Baroni to Questions Submitted by Sen. Frank Lautenberg". Hearing before the US Senate Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, and Security of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation (112th Congress, 2nd Session) April 18, 2012. US Government Printing Office.
- "Bridge scandal: meet Chris Christie and the other major players". The Star-Ledger. January 9, 2014.
- Isenstadt, Alex (January 9, 2014). "My time with Chris Christie's scandal-plagued aide David Wildstein". Politico.
- Boburg, Shawn (December 6, 2013). "Port Authority official at center of lane-closure controversy quits". The Record.
- Zernike, Kate (January 8, 2014). "Christie faces scandal on traffic jam aides ordered". New York Times.
- Rucker, Philip; Blake, Aaron (January 8, 2014). "Emails suggest Christie aides jammed traffic as political revenge". Washington Post.
- Portnoy, Jenna (January 9, 2014). "At bridge scandal hearing, former Port Authority official pleads the Fifth, won't comment". Star-Ledger.
- "Ex-Christie appointee found in contempt for refusing to answer questions on GWB lane closures". CBS New York. Associated Press. January 9, 2013.
- Zernike, Kate (January 31, 2014). "Christie Knew About Lane Closings, Ex-Port Authority Official Says". New York Times. Retrieved 31 January 2014.