Six New Jersey residents have filed a federal lawsuit against Gov. Chris Christie, the state of New Jersey and the Port Authority, among others, over the September closure of lanes on the George Washington Bridge allegedly orchestrated by aides to the governor as political payback to a local mayor.
The lawsuit filed in federal court Thursday appears to be the first civil claim over traffic jams that were apparently ordered as punishment for the Fort Lee mayor, a Democrat who did not endorse Christie in his re-election campaign. The plaintiffs want it certified as a class action lawsuit.
Lawyer Rosemarie Arnold says she filed it after learning this week that the lane closures on the New Jersey approach to the bridge, which caused traffic chaos at the mouth to the bridge, were "deliberate actions." She says her clients were late for work and that one suffered a panic attack as a result of being a "trapped rat" in gridlock for nearly an hour.
The lawsuit claims the alleged "scheme" denied the plaintiffs equal protection under the law and deprived them of their right to life, liberty and property in violation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
"By crippling the town during rush hour on the first day of school, that's exactly what they accomplished and that's why they're getting sued," Arnold said. "My clients plus tens of thousands of other people sustained the exact economic damages the defendants were hoping to cause when they implemented their nefarious plan."
Christie's spokesman did not respond to an email seeking comment on the lawsuit.
On Thursday, Christie apologized to the people of New Jersey and announced he fired the aide who he says lied to him about being involved in the closure of the lanes. He maintained, though, that he did not know his aides concocted the plan.
"I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team," Christie said at a news conference at the Statehouse Thursday, a day after emails were released that showed an aide green-lighted the lane closures.
The Republican governor said the closing of the lanes, which also caused ambulance delays, was not representative of his style as a person or a politician.
"I am who I am, but I am not a bully," he said.
The messages that emerged Wednesday showed that about three weeks before the lanes were shut down, Bridget Anne Kelly, a Christie deputy chief of staff, emailed David Wildstein, then a Christie appointee at the Port Authority, which controls the bridge.
"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Kelly wrote.
A few weeks later, on the weekend before the lane closures, Wildstein wrote to her: "I will call you Monday AM to let you know how Fort Lee goes."
Christie said Thursday that Kelly had been fired "because she lied to me." He said the scandal was his biggest disappointment in public office.
"I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution," he said.
Christie repeatedly said Thursday that he was not aware of his campaign even pursuing the Fort Lee mayor's endorsement, and claimed to have never heard of him until after the bridge scandal.
"This guy was never on my radar," he said.
Who Did What
The unannounced closings caused traffic backups that lasted hours on streets in Fort Lee, where the mouth of the bridge is located. The town's EMS coordinator also said the jams delayed paramedic response times, including for a 91-year-old woman who later died.
The lanes were ordered reopened after four days by the executive director of the authority, an appointee of Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Christie traveled to Fort Lee later Thursday and apologized in person to the mayor. Christie said they had a "productive meeting," and Sokolich told The Record newspaper the governor had taken "a big step" toward regaining the trust of Fort Lee's residents.
The U.S. attorney in Newark is looking into the lane closures, a spokeswoman said Thursday. The state legislature and the Port Authority are also investigating the matter.
Wildstein handed over the messages to the state Assembly's transportation committee after a subpoena.
Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman John Wisniewski, a Democrat who has been holding hearings on the lane closures, said the messages are "shocking" and "outrageous" and call into question the honesty of Christie and his staff.
Christie has nurtured an image as both a tough talker who takes on such adversaries as public workers' unions and a politician willing to compromise. Democrats have increasingly criticized him for what they see as him tending to his national profile at the expense of taking care of New Jersey issues.
Wildstein, a childhood friend of the governor, has resigned over the lane closings, as has Christie's top Port Authority deputy, Bill Baroni. Both have hired lawyers.
Published at 8:48 AM EST on Jan 10, 2014 | Updated at 8:31 PM EST on Jan 10, 2014
Copyright Associated Press / NBC 10 Philadelphia