Christie on bridge scandal: 'I knew nothing about this'

CNN
Thursday, January 9, 2014 - 11:10am

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Thursday apologized for the conduct of certain aides in orchestrating traffic jams near the George Washington Bridge to apparently punish a political rival, saying he was stunned by their actions and had no knowledge of what they were up to.

Christie said he was "embarrassed and humiliated" by the conduct of "some people on my team" and fired a senior aide at the center of the scandal that political commentators suggest could mean bigger problems for the potential Republican presidential candidate in 2016.

"I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here regardless of what the facts ultimately uncover. This was handled in a callous and indifferent way," he told a news conference.

Christie gave anyone with knowledge of the incident affecting the town of Fort Lee over several days last September to come forward with information.

"I am responsible for what happens under my watch -- the good and the bad," he said.

But the governor said he had no knowledge or involvement of this issue in its planning and its execution.

"I knew nothing about this," he told a news conference.

He said he was "digging in" and asking questions to find out what occurred.

Earlier, a state senator called for a federal investigation into Christie's administration over the allegations that rocked Trenton on Wednesday with the release of explosive e-mails involving political appointees in the state.

September lane closures near the world's busiest bridge connecting New Jersey to Manhattan snarled traffic for days in Fort Lee -- an event that was not only inconvenient but also potentially delayed emergency services, endangering people's lives, New Jersey state Sen. Ray Lesniak told CNN's "New Day."

"This crosses a line that is rarely crossed: People's lives were in danger," said Lesniak, a Democrat. "Endangering people's lives -- that's not politics. That's why the U.S. attorneys have to get involved."

Separately, Justice Department prosecutors are looking into the matter, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey said.

Christie said he was "blindsided" by the release of the e-mails that suggested top-level appointees sought to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who wouldn't support the governor at the polls in November.

Christie and his staff originally blamed the closures and the traffic delays on a mishandled traffic study, something he reiterated at his news conference.

Fort Lee officials said that an elderly woman who suffered a heart attack died after paramedics were delayed in reaching her because of traffic problems. Details of the woman's death haven't been released, but Lesniak suggested Thursday that the issue should be part of the investigation.

Lesniak called for an investigation hours earlier on his Twitter account.

"Wow! Time for a federal grand jury. This smells of corrupt use of government authority at the highest levels," he tweeted.

While Lesniak is calling for a federal investigation, U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the Port Authority, indicated his desire for an investigation in December. He asked Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to review this incident.

'Time for some traffic problems'

Christie said sokolich "was never on my radar screen" as someone whose endorsement he was seeking. "Part of this is, I never saw this as political retribution because I didn't think he did anything to us," Christie said.

The correspondence, subpoenaed by Democrats investigating the matter and spiced with tough Jersey political talk and expletives, is the most damaging evidence so far supporting their assertions that the move was orchestrated because Sokolich didn't endorse Christie's re-election.

The mayor said the traffic mess created serious hardships for commuters and other residents, and affected public safety in his community.

The exchanges began three weeks before access lanes to the bridge were closed, causing heavy traffic backups between September 9 and 13, two months before Election Day.

"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, said in an e-mail to David Wildstein, then the highest-level appointee representing the state at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge connecting the two states.

"Got it," Wildstein replied.

In another message about school buses with students on board caught in the traffic jams, Wildstein writes, "they are the children of Buono voters," apparently referring to Barbara Buono, Christie's Democratic opponent in last November's gubernatorial election.

Those cited in the series of e-mails and text messages did not respond to requests for comment or to verify the communications.

A judge ruled on Thursday that David Wildstein, who ordered the bridge lanes closed, must testify before a state Assembly committee investigating the scandal. That hearing was set for Thursday afternoon.

Weinstein resigned from his top-level job as the scandal unfolded.

Christie said that Kelly had been fired.

Democratic New Jersey Assembly Deputy Speaker John Wisniewski said the e-mails call into question the integrity of the governor's office but he said Christie's name did not appear in the e-mails.

Christie, he said, "has a lot of explaining to do."

Emergency services disrupted

Sokolich told CNN's "The Situation Room" the e-mails suggested that political motives behind the lane closures have led him to believe that Christie is more clued-in than he's admitted.

"I'm rooting that the highest elected official in the state of New Jersey isn't involved. But I'm beginning to question my judgment," Sokolich said.

The mayor raised the issue of public safety being compromised. A letter by his emergency services coordinator, Paul Favia, on September 10 obtained by CNN cited a "new traffic pattern" around the bridge's toll plaza that was backing up traffic in Fort Lee.

"This new traffic pattern is causing unnecessary delays for emergency services to arrive on scene for medical emergencies," Favia said, citing one case in which paramedics rushing to aid an unconscious elderly woman suffering a heart attack were held up and had to meet the ambulance transporting the victim at the hospital instead of at the scene. She later died.

The situation could deepen Christie's political woes, said David Gergen, a CNN senior political analyst.

"If a woman died here," he said, "he's in deep, deep trouble."

Analysts: Bridge firestorm could have bigger impact on Christie

Even if he had nothing to do with the traffic snarls, the allegations could have serious consequences for Christie, analysts said.

"There's something about this that's so petty and so vindictive, and it feeds into this narrative that he's a bully. ... He's going to have to find some way to defuse this to prove he doesn't run a shop like that," said Gergen, a former adviser to several U.S. presidents.

As criticisms of Christie's management style of being heavy handed and petty come to the forefront, Christie said, "I am not a bully." But he added that he is "soul searching" about why he created an environment in which his staff felt they had to lie to him.

It's a defining moment for Christie, said John King, CNN's chief national correspondent. And how he deals with the situation in the next two days -- from whether he fires anyone to what he says -- will be key.

Does this mean Christie's presidential ambitions are dashed?

"Not necessarily," Oxford University historian Timothy Stanley wrote in an opinion piece for CNN.com. "He's a resourceful politician and it's still many months before campaigning starts in earnest. But now, his opponents have a stick to beat him with.

It's important to ask how much Christie knew, Gergen said, but the reality might be more complicated.

"Sometimes the boss does not order something," Gergen said, describing the Nixon White House during the Watergate scandal. "I don't know whether Nixon ordered Watergate, but I can guarantee you that people who carried out Watergate thought that's what he would have wanted. There's an environment in which you find yourself sometimes on staff when things don't have to be said. You sort of know."

Democrats swarm

Christie is now campaigning for fellow GOP governors as chairman of the Republican Governors Association and is seen as a prime political target for national Democrats.

-- CNN's John Crawley, Jake Tapper, Paul Steinhauser, Alan Silverleib, Stephanie Kotuby and Dana Davidsen contributed to this report.

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