In a jam over traffic snarl on bridge, New Jersey Gov. Christie fires aide, adviser
TRENTON, N.J. — A contrite New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie apologized on Thursday for a scandal that threatens his political future, announcing that he had fired a senior aide and banished his top campaign adviser for their roles in days of traffic jams orchestrated to punish a small-city Democratic mayor.
Christie at once claimed responsibility as the state's chief executive but insisted he had no involvement in shutting down a pair of access lanes to the heavily trafficked George Washington Bridge during four days in early September.
The Republican governor said he was “blindsided” by this week's release of emails and text messages detailing his office's role in the plot to foment severe gridlock in Fort Lee, N.J.
In a meandering, two-hour news conference in his office in the State Capitol, Christie said he is “embarrassed and humiliated” by an episode that left him feeling “heartbroken” and “betrayed.” Despite his reputation for “directness and blunt talk,” the governor said, “I am not a bully.”
Christie, a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, tried to tamp down allegations that he had nurtured a culture of intimidation in his administration and his political campaigns.
“This is the exception — it is not the rule — of what's happened over the last four years in this administration,” Christie said. He added that he was “stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here.”
Christie repeatedly invoked his ignorance of key events, providing a contrast to his carefully cultivated image as a hands-on, can-do chief executive and former prosecutor who helped guide New Jersey in the painful aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
Christie said he delegates “enormous authority” to his staff, despite his reputation as a micromanager. He said he first learned of the damning emails between his staff and associates by reading The (Bergen, N.J.) Record's breaking news report on Wednesday on his iPad at the governor's mansion as he got ready to shower after his morning workout.
The emails suggest that Christie operatives jammed traffic in Fort Lee to retaliate against Mark Sokolich, the small city's mayor, who did not endorse Christie's 2013 re-election. Christie claimed he never knew his team was pursuing Sokolich's endorsement and that, until he saw the mayor's picture on television, “I wouldn't have been able to pick him out of a lineup.”
Following his marathon news conference, Christie traveled to Fort Lee to apologize personally to Sokolich and the community for the lane closures, which severely delayed commuters, school buses and emergency vehicles.
Although the mayor initially thought a meeting would be disruptive, he later said that he accepted Christie's apology.
“I take him for his word,” Sokolich said.
The bridge controversy is certain to continue. The office of U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman announced that it has opened a preliminary inquiry in response to a referral from the inspector general at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the bridge.
In Trenton, former Christie appointee David Wildstein, who is shown helping to orchestrate the gridlock plan in emails, invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination as he refused to answer questions in front of the General Assembly's transportation committee. The panel voted unanimously to refer Wildstein to authorities for a possible contempt charge.
Thousands of additional pages of emails connected to the legislative inquiry could be made public as early as Friday.
Christie said he fired deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly, who, like other members of his tight-knit inner circle, was considered family. Emails show that Kelly was closely involved in executing the gridlock plan, including a message sent to Wildstein in August declaring, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Christie described Kelly as “stupid” and “deceitful,” adding, “I've terminated her employment because she lied to me.”
The governor said he told his senior aides before a news conference last month that they had one hour to share any information they may have about the lane closures with Kevin O'Dowd, his chief of staff, and Charlie Mc-Kenna, his chief counsel. Kelly said nothing, Christie said, prompting him to unwittingly mislead the public by insisting that the governor's office had nothing to do with the gridlock.
Christie announced, too, that he had removed Bill Stepien, his closest political adviser and his campaign manager in 2009 and 2013, from his political organization, at least temporarily.
No evidence has surfaced that Stepien was involved in closing the lanes, but emails show he communicated about the incident after the fact with Wildstein, who resigned late last year as the scandal began to escalate.