New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Wednesday he is “outraged” by newly released documents linking a senior member of his staff to the closure of lanes on a major bridge in September — shutdowns that caused massive traffic jams and sparked allegations that the closures were the result of political retribution.
The Republican, a likely 2016 presidential candidate, denied personal knowledge of any plans to close the lanes and vowed that “people will be held responsible for their actions.”
N.J. assemblyman: Christie ‘has a lot of explaining to do’
“What I’ve seen today for the first time is unacceptable,” Christie said in a written statement provided by his office Wednesday afternoon, the first comments the governor has made since the explosive documents emerged earlier in the day and prompted him to cancel a public event.
“I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge. One thing is clear: this type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my Administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.”
Christie previously had denied his staff played a role in the lane closures and even mocked reporters for asking about the issue when it emerged months ago. He said a traffic study prompted the closure. But the emails tell a different story, potentially undercutting Christie’s reputation as a truth-teller who doesn’t play political games.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly wrote in an email to Port Authority official David Wildstein, a Christie ally, on Aug. 13, 2013, according to The Record (N.J.) and other news outlets.
“Got it,” Wildstein replied. The following month, two of the town’s lanes to the George Washington Bridge were closed, causing backups for a week that one local columnist described as a “disaster” that “quadruple[d] commuting time for some of the people who live closest to one of the nation’s busiest bridges.”
Emergency responders said the traffic delayed their responses to four different medical calls, the Record reported. One involved a 91-year-old woman who died after reaching the hospital, according to the Record, although officials did not directly attribute her death to the traffic.
The closures came ahead of the gubernatorial election at a time when Christie was looking to maximize his support from the rival party. He ultimately claimed endorsements from more than 60 elected Democrats in New Jersey. But Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, did not endorse Christie for reelection, and some New Jersey Democrats have accused Christie supporters of retaliating with the lane closures.
The longer — and higher — the scandal goes, the bigger a problem it could be for Christie’s national ambitions. The emails underscore the reputation Christie, a former federal prosecutor, has in New Jersey as a bully who lashes out at enemies over slights — real or perceived.
“This is absolutely the lowest level of political venom you could possibly even make up,” Sokolich said on CNN Wednesday. “I think he has to publicly address the folks that are specifically impacted by this, I think apologies need to be doled out and I think reforms have to be put in place to make sure this never ever happens again.”
Christie’s statement was vague about the number of aides he expects to discipline, and when. His staff did not immediately respond to requests for clarification. He referred only to having been “misled by a member of my staff” – apparently just one individual. He did not refer by name to Kelly.
At least one Christie confidant tied to the controversy appears shielded from immediate fallout: Bill Stepien, the governor’s former campaign manager and newly appointed state party chairman, is expected to continue advising the Republican Governors Association in a senior role. Stepien joined the RGA as a top adviser after Christie became chairman of the organization late last year.
Stepien was included on several emails last fall referring to traffic turmoil in Fort Lee, including one in which he referred to the town’s Democratic mayor as an “idiot.” In the messages reported up to this point, he has not been linked to the actual decision to snarl traffic near the bridge.
“Bill will absolutely continue to be a valued consultant and adviser for the RGA,” said Jon Thompson, press secretary for the gubernatorial committee.
Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who chairs the committee that Wildstein is expected to testify before on Thursday, blasted the governor Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s not about traffic,” Wisniewski told CNN. “It’s about abuse of power. It’s about an administration that will not take no for an answer and an administration that is very comfortable exacting political retribution.”
He said between 3,000 and 5,000 pages of documents about the issue exist, according to reports. That’s vastly more than the roughly two dozen pages released Wednesday after state lawmakers issued a subpoena on the matter.
Fred Malek, a finance chair of the Republican Governors Association, was incredulous about the documents .
“This is way too bush-league for somebody of Christie’s sophistication and ability to be a part of,” Malek said. “If somebody on his staff did do it, I am convinced he would not have known about it because if he’d known about it, he would not have permitted it. This is bush-league stuff. This is not Chris Christie.”
Text messages between Wildstein and an unidentified person were also released Wednesday that mentioned Christie’s reelection opponent, Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono.
“I feel badly about the kids,” the person said in a message on the week of the lane closures, apparently referring to school buses caught in the jam.
“They are the children of Buono voters,” replied Wildstein, who resigned in December.
Christie addressed questions last month at length about the lane closures, his and his staff’s involvement and the allegations the closures were politically motivated.
“To be clear, at no point did you instruct anybody to close lanes into the GWB and you did not tell anybody to do that to get back at the mayor of Fort Lee,” a reporter said at a Dec. 13 press conference, according to a transcript provided by the governor’s office prior to Wednesday’s revelations.
“Absolutely not,” Christie said.
“Can you say with certainty that someone else didn’t on your staff or in your administration act on your behalf for the lane closures for political retribution?” a reporter asked.
“Yeah, I have absolutely no reason to believe that,” Christie said. “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.”
He was also asked whether Wildstein or another Port Authority official, former New Jersey state Sen. Bill Baroni, called for the traffic study “as retaliation for a non-endorsement.”
“I can only tell you what Senator Baroni has said publicly and to everybody in this office, was that they believed the traffic study was necessary and that they ordered it, but that the way they did it was mistaken and they didn’t follow protocols,” Christie said.
Messages from Baroni were also among the documents released Wednesday. Like Wildstein, Baroni resigned in December.
Former New Jersey Republican Gov. Tom Kean, a longtime Christie mentor, was stunned when he learned of the emails.
“That’s a big deal because they were saying there’s no connection to the governor’s office,” he told POLITICO. “That’s a connection.”
Operatives who dislike Christie were gleeful with one Republican strategist saying the emails read like an episode of “The Sopranos.”
“It’s really hard to see how someone who’s tried to stake his reputation on straight talk can get around this episode, which is certainly rife with dissembling, coming out of the highest echelons of his administration,” said Joel Benenson, President Barack Obama’s pollster, who has worked extensively in New Jersey.
“I think it’s a colossal screwup on multiple levels that just reached the highest levels of his campaign and his administration. The closing the lanes itself was a colossal screwup and everything between then and today is a colossal screwup.”
Alexander Burns contributed to this report.