New Jersey Governor Chris Christie went to Fort Lee to ask forgiveness of the town’s mayor and residents for a days-long traffic jam triggered by an aide as political revenge.
The meeting with Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich was “good and productive,” the Republican governor, 51, told reporters today in the New York suburb. Minutes later, Sokolich emerged and said he accepted Christie’s apology.
“I take him at his word, which is that he had nothing to do with it,” said Sokolich, who declined to endorse the governor for re-election last year.
Christie said at a news conference in Trenton earlier today that he was “embarrassed and humiliated” by members of his team and had 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.
The governor said he had no knowledge of his aides’ actions 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 Sokolich, according to e-mails and texts obtained yesterday. The actions endanger Christie’s claim to bipartisan leadership and distracts from his growing role within his party as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
Sokolich didn’t break ranks -- as dozens of other New Jersey Democrats did -- to back Christie 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.”
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”