Jan. 9 (Bloomberg) -- New Jersey Governor Chris Christie apologized for a days-long traffic jam triggered by an aide as political revenge as the episode threatened his possible 2016 presidential run and set off a federal investigation.
Christie told reporters in Trenton today that he’s “embarrassed and humiliated” by members of his team and said he fired Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff. Christie said she lied when he asked senior aides a month ago whether they knew about lane closings that paralyzed Fort Lee, a town at the end of the George Washington Bridge whose mayor didn’t endorse him.
The governor plans to visit Fort Lee today in an effort to apologize in person to Mayor Mark Sokolich and residents.
Christie, a 51-year-old Republican, said he had no knowledge about the actions of his aides and appointees and was “stunned” to learn of them. “There’s no justification for that behavior,” Christie said.
“I am responsible for what happens under my watch,” he said. “I am heartbroken that someone I permitted into that circle of trust for the last five years betrayed my trust.”
Christie aides ordered the shutdown of the bridge’s Fort Lee approach lanes during four days in September to punish the Democratic mayor, according to e-mails and texts obtained yesterday. The furor endangers Christie’s claim to bipartisan leadership and distracts from his growing role within his party as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
Paul J. Fishman, the U.S. attorney in New Jersey, is probing the matter, spokeswoman Rebekah Carmichael said today. Christie said he has nothing to hide and will direct his staff to cooperate.
The White House won’t be involved in any decision by the U.S. attorney to pursue an investigation, press secretary Jay Carney said during a briefing today.
National Democrats declared Christie’s performance at the news conference self-centered and evasive.
“He lauded himself for swift action in firing staffers for lying to him,” Mo Elleithee, a Democratic National Committee spokesman, said in a news release. “And he argued that this was not reflective of the culture he’s created in his office. But Chris Christie is not the victim. The people of New Jersey who trusted him are.”
Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary under Republican President George W. Bush, said the governor acquitted himself well.
“His reaction seemed natural, believable, apologetic and characteristically blunt,” Fleischer said. “The only thing he has to fear is information that contradicts his statement that he didn’t know about the lane closures.”
Sokolich didn’t break ranks -- as dozens of other New Jersey Democrats did -- to endorse Christie for re-election in November against his Democratic challenger, Barbara Buono. Christie swamped Buono, 60 percent to 38 percent.
The e-mails showed that Kelly on Aug. 13 told David Wildstein, a Christie appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge, that it was “time for some traffic problems.”
Last month, Christie said he had nothing to do with the closings, joking with reporters that he personally blocked the traffic with cones. That statement, he said today, came after he convened staff and gave them one hour to disclose what they knew. Nobody came forward, he said.
Christie said his communications director, Maria Comella, called him yesterday at 8:45 a.m. between his workout with his trainer and his shower to tell him about the e-mails and texts. He said he got very little sleep, and by 9 a.m. today, he’d decided to fire Kelly.
The governor said he was “blindsided.” He said he would have never joked about the issue had he realized his staff’s involvement.
Christie, a former U.S. attorney, said he asked Bill Stepien, a top aide, to remove his name from consideration as leader of the state Republican Party. Stepien, who also is stepping down as a political adviser to the RGA, wrote in a Sept. 18 e-mail to Wildstein: “The mayor is an idiot.”
The gridlock delayed crews responding to medical emergencies, including that of a 91-year-old woman who suffered cardiac arrest and later died. Paramedics hit heavy traffic on Fort Lee Road and met the ambulance en route to the hospital instead of at the scene, Paul Favia, Fort Lee’s emergency medical services coordinator, said in a Sept. 10 letter to Sokolich released by the borough clerk’s office.
From Sept. 9 to 12, delays in crossing the George Washington Bridge that typically last about 30 minutes stretched to four hours or more. On the fifth day, officials on the New York side re-opened lanes on what the Port Authority calls the busiest bridge in the world, a key link for U.S. East Coast traffic on Interstate 95.
“We are appropriately going nuts,” Wildstein wrote to Kelly on Sept. 13, as traffic flowed. David Samson, Christie’s appointee as Port Authority chairman, was “helping us to retaliate” for the easing of the snarls, the e-mails said.
Christie said that he spoke to Samson for two hours yesterday and believes that he knew nothing about the issue.
At 8:04 a.m. on Sept. 10, Sokolich sent a text to Bill Baroni, Christie’s top executive appointee at the authority, saying Fort Lee had “four very busy traffic lanes merging into only one toll booth.”
His text became part of a string discussing the closings. The record doesn’t include the identities of participants other than Sokolich.
“The bigger problem is getting kids to school,” Sokolich wrote. “Help, please. It’s maddening.”
The text string includes a response: “They are the children of Buono voters.”
Baroni, a former state senator, resigned from the Port Authority on Dec. 13. Wildstein also quit.
“This is not the tone that I’ve set over the past four years in this building,” Christie said. “This is the exception. This is not the rule.”
A New Jersey judge today refused to block a subpoena by the Democratic-controlled state Assembly for Wildstein to testify in Trenton about the affair. At the committee hearing, which began about 1 p.m., Wildstein invoked his right to remain silent so as not to incriminate himself.
The panel ruled Wildstein in contempt. Its chairman, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, said the committee will subpoena more documents and seek to compel more testimony. Kelly will be among the next round of subpoenas, he said.
“Clearly, the governor is in damage-control mode,” Wisniewski said.
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