Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich is now claiming Gov. Chris Christie’s camp for more than two years courted him with gifts and other benefits in a bid to woo the Democratic mayor into endorsing Christie’s gubernatorial campaign.
And, Sokolich believes, when those efforts failed to draw his political support, state officials responded by ordering the September closure of two access lanes of the busy George Washington Bridge, causing days of traffic gridlock in Fort lee.
The admissions, made Friday in an interview with The Bergen Record, came as the latest twist in a growing political scandal that some say is casting a pall over Christie's potential 2016 presidential run. Documents released last month revealed the closure was intentional and involved some of Christie’s staffers and allies.
The interview was the first time Sokolich directly linked the closure to his refusal to endorse Christie. In fact, he has in the past flat-out denied those claims.
Sokolich said that, in retrospect, he believes free lunches and personal tours, as well as shuttle buses provided to his town, were all part of an orchestrated effort by Christie’s camp to pressure Sokolich into offering his political support.
Sokolich said Port Authority executive and Christie appointee David Wildstein, believed to have ordered the lane closing, took Sokolich and his two visiting cousins on a personal tour of the 9/11 Memorial Plaza in October 2012.
Sokolich said he called former Port Authority deputy executive director Bill Baroni, another close Christie ally, to arrange the tour. Both Wildstein and Baroni resigned their posts in December as scrutiny of the scandal mounted.
As part of what Sokolich described as "a gradual courting," he said the Port Authority offered him gifts like shuttle buses for Fort Lee residents, which Christie reportedly backed in a May 2012 letter urging the agency to appropriate $162,000 for the vehicles.
Sokolich claimed Christie invited him to lunch at the governor’s mansion and that he also attended at least one Christie-hosted Christmas party there.
Sokolich offered the examples to refute Christie's claims that he was not familiar with the mayor. Christie said at a news conference last month that Sokolich was “never on his radar screen” and that, before seeing the Fort Lee mayor on television, he “wouldn’t have been able to pick him out of a lineup.”
A Christie spokesman called Sokolich’s most recent claims “a direct and absolute contradiction of his public comments up to this point,” according to the report.
Christie has repeatedly denied having knowledge of the lane closures at the time they occurred and claimed to be unaware of any political motives behind them.