TRENTON, New Jersey (Reuters) — New Jersey
Governor Chris Christie on Thursday fired a top aide who apparently
helped orchestrate massive traffic jams at a busy commuter bridge to
settle a score, saying he had been blindsided in the scandal that
threatened to tarnish his political image.
As Christie apologized publicly for the abrupt lane closings
seemingly ordered by some of his staff, and which he said he did not
know about beforehand, the office of the U.S. Attorney in New Jersey
said it was launching an investigation. Also on Thursday, a
class-action lawsuit over the traffic jams was filed against
Christie and other government officials by Fort Lee-area residents.
Revelations that his staff may have had a hand in plotting the
four-day lane closures at the George Washington Bridge in September,
causing hours-long jams that stalled commuters, school buses and
ambulances, come as Christie has emerged as a powerful figure in the
Republican Party and a possible presidential contender.
The controversy erupted with the release on Wednesday of emails
showing Christie's aide and allies appearing to plan lane closings
in what critics said was a bid to punish the Democratic mayor of
Fort Lee, at the New Jersey end of the bridge, because he had
declined to endorse Christie's re-election effort.
"I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the
people on my team," Christie said. "I am who I am, but I am not a
As the head of the party's governors association and a possible 2016
White House contender, the tough-talking governor has sought to
present himself as a leader who can work with opponents and forge
Christie said at his news conference that he dismissed his deputy
chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, who in the most damning of the
emails, wrote to a Port Authority executive in August, saying: "Time
for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."
The executive, David Wildstein, replied: "Got it."
Wildstein later admitted ordering the lane closures and resigned his
post. He supplied the emails to the media in response to a subpoena
issued by a panel of state lawmakers.
Appearing before the panel on Thursday, Wildstein declined to answer
questions, repeatedly invoking the constitutional protection not to
say anything that might incriminate him.
The state Assembly's transportation, public works and independent
authorities committee, which is probing the closures, voted to hold
him in contempt.
The charge will be referred to a county prosecutor for determination
of what it could mean for Wildstein, an Assembly spokesman said.
The U.S. attorney for New Jersey, Paul Fishman, whose job Christie
held before being elected governor, has opened a probe into the
decision to close the bridge lanes, his spokeswoman said.
"Our office is reviewing it to determine whether a federal law was
implicated," Rebekah Carmichael said in a statement.
A local newspaper reported emergency responders were delayed in
attending to four medical situations — one involving an unconscious
91-year-old woman who later died of cardiac arrest and another, a
car accident, in which four people were injured.
The class-action lawsuit filed in federal court on Thursday by
attorney Rosemarie Arnold said that area residents suffered economic
damages as a result of the closings, because they were trapped in
At the news conference, Christie referred to the lane closings as a
"rogue political operation."
"I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here," Christie
said. "This was handled in a callous and indifferent way, and this
is not the way this administration has conducted itself over the
last four years."
"HEARTBROKEN" AND APOLOGETIC
Christie took reporters' questions at the packed news conference in
his office that lasted nearly two hours.
He appeared contrite, describing himself repeatedly as "heartbroken"
and apologizing several times to the public, and even to the media.
Toward the end of his lengthy appearance he visibly relaxed, leaning
against the podium, and resorted to more typical form, calling one
reporter's question "crazy."
He later visited Fort Lee and apologized to Mayor Mark Sokolich, who
told reporters he accepted the apology.
"It was a terrible thing and we are going to work to fix it,"
Christie said as he left the town hall.
Christie has enjoyed immense popularity at home since his election
in 2009, particularly for his handling of recovery and rebuilding
efforts after Superstorm Sandy devastated the state in late 2012. He
was re-elected in a landslide in November.
But he is known as well for engaging in shouting matches, hurling
insults and belittling challengers.
Christie told the news conference he was "nowhere near" beginning to
consider a possible 2016 presidential bid, but some saw the traffic
scandal as taking a major toll on his political career.
The New York Daily News in an editorial pronounced his presidential
aspirations as "all but kaput," saying Christie will be "lambasted
and lampooned as a man of low character and horrible judgment."
Taking a poke at Christie's heft as well, the Daily News front page
headline on Thursday read: "Fat chance now, Chris."
But David Axelrod, a former political adviser to President Barack
Obama, said on Twitter that Christie handled the issue at the news
conference "about as well as he could."
"Unless smoking gun turns up tying him to scheme, or others arise,
he lives to fight another day," Axelrod tweeted.
(Additional reporting by Edith Honan, Chris Francescani and Andrew
Longstreth in New York and Marina Lopes in Fort Lee, N.J.; writing
by Ellen Wulfhorst and Mary Wisniewski; editing by Gunna Dickson and