New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie apologized to the people of New Jersey and announced he has fired an aide who he says lied to him about being involved in the closure of lanes on the George Washington Bridge as political payback to a local mayor. New Jersey Reporter Brian Thompson reports. (Published Thursday, Jan 9, 2014)
"I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team," Christie said at a news conference at the Statehouse Thursday, a day after emails were released that showed an aide green-lighted the lane closures.
The Republican governor said the closing of the lanes, which caused major traffic headaches for days -- including ambulance delays -- in a town on the New Jersey side of the bridge where the Democratic mayor had not endorsed him, was not representative of his style as a person or a politician.
"I am who I am, but I am not a bully," he said.
Christie, who is widely considered a top presidential candidate for 2016, had previously denied his staff had any connection to the September closure of the lanes, at times ridiculing the very idea when reporters asked.
The messages that emerged Wednesday showed that about three weeks before the lanes were shut down, Bridget Anne Kelly, a Christie deputy chief of staff, emailed David Wildstein, then a Christie appointee at the Port Authority, which controls the bridge.
"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Kelly wrote.
A few weeks later, on the weekend before the lane closures, Wildstein wrote to her: "I will call you Monday AM to let you know how Fort Lee goes."
Christie said Thursday that Kelly had been fired "because she lied to me." He said the scandal was his biggest disappointment in public office.
"I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution," he said.
Christie repeatedly said Thursday that he was not aware of his campaign even pursuing the Fort Lee mayor's endorsement, and claimed to have never heard of him until after the bridge scandal.
"This guy was never on my radar," he said.
Who Did What
The unannounced closings caused traffic backups that lasted hours on streets in Fort Lee, where the mouth of the bridge is located. The town's EMS coordinator also said the jams delayed paramedic response times, including for a 91-year-old woman who later died.
Text messages also obtained by NBC 4 New York and other news outlets Wednesday show an unidentified person texting Wildstein about the Fort Lee mayor, Mark Sokolich, asking for help on the second day of the closures: "Is it wrong that I am smiling?"
He texted back: "No."
The other person texted about feeling bad for children not being able to get to school because of the traffic.
Wildstein wrote back: "They are the children of Buono voters," referring to Christie's 2013 opponent for governor, Democrat Barbara Buono.
The lanes were ordered reopened after four days by the executive director of the authority, an appointee of Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Christie traveled to Fort Lee later in the day and apologized in person to the mayor. Christie said they had a "productive meeting," and Sokolich told The Record newspaper the governor had taken "a big step" toward regaining the trust of Fort Lee's residents.
The U.S. attorney in Newark is looking into the lane closures, a spokeswoman said Thursday. The state legislature and the Port Authority are also investigating the matter.
Wildstein handed over the messages to the state Assembly's transportation committee after a subpoena.
Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman John Wisniewski, a Democrat who has been holding hearings on the lane closures, said the messages are "shocking" and "outrageous" and call into question the honesty of Christie and his staff.
Christie has nurtured an image as both a tough talker who takes on such adversaries as public workers' unions and a politician willing to compromise. Democrats have increasingly criticized him for what they see as him tending to his national profile at the expense of taking care of New Jersey issues.
Wildstein, a childhood friend of the governor, has resigned over the lane closings, as has Christie's top Port Authority deputy, Bill Baroni. Both have hired lawyers.
Compelled to testify Thursday before a state Assembly committee conducting an investigation, Wildstein asserted his right to remain silent and did not answer questions. The committee voted to accuse him of contempt and said it would refer the charge to law enforcement.
Wisniewski said after the hearing that "it makes one wonder what exactly he doesn't want to discuss, and it raises even more questions about what happened with these lane closings when it comes to finding out who knew what and when."
A Christie spokeswoman said Kelly was not available for comment.
Six state residents have filed a federal lawsuit against Christie, the state, the Port Authority and others, calling the traffic jams "deliberate actions."
Copyright Associated Press / NBC Bay Area