Christie apologizes for lane-closing scandal, fires top aide

Furor over the allegedly deliberate jam could threaten the New Jersey governor's expected 2016 presidential bid

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at a news conference on Thursday.
Mel Evans/AP

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie offered a public apology Thursday morning for September lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, saying that he was "embarrassed and humiliated" by his staff members who ordered them and that he had fired deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly.

"I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution, and I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here regardless of what the facts ultimately uncover," Christie said at a press conference. "This was handled in a callous and indifferent way, and it is not the way this administration has conducted itself over the last four years and not the way it will conduct itself in the next four."

Christie said he was "heartbroken" that people who had been on his staff for several years had betrayed his trust in ordering the closures to retaliate against Fort Lee, N.J., Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie's 2013 re-election. The governor said he would travel to Fort Lee later Thursday to personally apologize to Sokolich.

Emails and messages from the aides discussing the closures were revealed Wednesday, and while they do not directly implicate Christie in the shutdown, they do contradict his assertions that the closings were not punitive and that his staff was not involved.

The governor said he was "blindsided" by the news Wednesday, and that while he had no prior knowledge of the damning emails Kelly wrote requesting the lane closures — which caused major traffic jams on the heavily traveled bridge — he said he was "ultimately responsible" for his staff's actions.

Christie said he would ask Bill Stepien, his former campaign manager, to remove his name from consideration to be the new chair of New Jersey's Republican Party and to terminate his consulting work with the Republican Governors Association, because of the "callous indifference" revealed in Stepien's emails about the incident.

The political furor surrounding Christie intensified before the governor's news conference, with The New York Times reporting that a U.S. attorney in the state would open a preliminary inquiry into the lane closures.

Political analysts say the scandal could tarnish the reputation for integrity that has made the governor a leading contender for the GOP's presidential nomination in 2016.

The messages from Christie's aides were obtained by The Associated Press and other news organizations amid a statehouse investigation into whether the huge traffic backup was intended as retribution against Sokolich, a Democrat, for not endorsing Christie for re-election.

"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Kelly wrote in August in a message to David Wildstein, a top Christie appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

"Got it," Wildstein replied. A few weeks later, Wildstein closed two of three lanes connecting Fort Lee to the bridge, which runs between New Jersey and New York City.

Local news site NorthJersey.com reported that emergency response teams were delayed in four separate cases due to the lane closures. In one of the cases, a 91-year-old woman reportedly died.

Kelly had no immediate comment.

The political impact may be serious, analysts say.

Deborah Howlett, former president of consulting firm New Jersey Policy Perspective, told Al Jazeera that prospective voters may see this as a sign of what would come from a Christie White House.

"I think what's important about this scandal from his perspective is it sort of reveals the inner workings of his administration, and it's not a pretty picture," Howlett said.

If Christie does know more than he let on in his statement Wednesday, "coming clean would be the best way to end (the scandal)," Howlett said. "In any crisis, you have to come clean immediately and completely. The worst thing you can do is to let it fester.

"Dealing with reporters in New Jersey becomes parochial. Once you're on a national stage, it's a whole different dynamic," she said.

Democrats seized on the material as more evidence that the potential presidential candidate is a bully.

The messages "indicate what we've come to expect from Governor Christie — when people oppose him, he exacts retribution," said Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. "When people question him, he belittles and snidely jokes. And when anyone dares to look into his administration, he bullies and attacks." 

Sokolich said it was "appalling" that the traffic jams appear to have been engineered.

"When it's man-made and when it was done with venom and when it was done intentionally, it is, in my mind, the prime example of political pettiness," he said. 

Christie sought bipartisan support during his re-election campaign to bolster his image as a pragmatic leader willing to work with his political opponents.

The traffic jams occurred between Sept. 9 and 13. Port Authority officials later said the closings were part of a traffic study, but no study has been produced.

As the controversy heated up over the past few weeks, Wildstein resigned, as did Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni, another Christie appointee. Wildstein, a childhood friend of the governor, is scheduled to testify on Thursday before a state Assembly committee, but he is fighting the subpoena.

One of the recently released texts came from Sokolich, who pleaded on the morning of Sept. 10: "The bigger problem is getting kids to school. Help please. It's maddening."

Within minutes of Sokolich's plea, an unidentified person commented in a text message: "Is it wrong that I am smiling?" Someone joked in another text that the youngsters referred to by Sokolich "are the children of Buono voters" — a reference to Christie's Democratic opponent for governor, state Sen. Barbara Buono.

Also among the correspondence, some of which was blacked out, is an email from Wildstein to Kelly on Sept. 7, two days before the lane closings. He said he would call her "to let you know how Fort Lee goes."

Most of the emails were sent using private accounts rather than government ones, which would be subject to open-records laws and therefore public.

The Democratic National Committee released a Web video detailing Christie's prior assurances that neither he nor his staff had anything to do with the lane closings.

"I've made it very clear to everybody on my senior staff that if anyone had any knowledge about this, that they needed to come forward to me and tell me about it, and they've all assured me that they don't," Christie said in mid-December.

Wasserman Schultz said the new material proves that "the governor's office ordered lane closures that were intended to make first responders experience delays, kids sit gridlocked on the first day of school and commuters hit logjams, to punish the Democratic mayor who didn't endorse Chris Christie's re-election bid."

Sokolich said that because of the traffic backup, emergency calls that average a two- or four-minute response time took up to 16 minutes.

"To me it's appalling, and I got to tell you, somebody owes a lot of people a lot of apologies," he said. "Somebody ought to contact families waiting two, three, four times the response times when their loved ones had chest pains. Someone has to apologize to the thousands of families who couldn't get their kids to the first day of school on time."

Fort Lee Councilwoman Ila Kasofsky said she knows of one woman who could not get over the bridge to be with her husband, who was undergoing a stem cell transplant, and another who could not get to New York to be with her son as he went through kidney dialysis.

"I think this is 10 times worse than Watergate, because this affected so many more lives and their health and safety," said Kasofsky.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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