N.J. Governor addresses public for the first time since allegations members of his Administration purposely closed down lanes on the Geroge Washington Bridge.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a darling of the Republican Party and often presumed presidential candidate for 2016, was apologetic as he spoke publicly for the first time since evidence surfaced that his administration may have caused massive traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge to enact political revenge.
"I come out here today to apologize to the people of New Jersey. I apologize to the people of Fort Lee," the governor said during a press conference on Thursday. “I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team."
Speaking to a room packed full of local and national media at the N.J. State Capitol in Trenton, N.J., the 51-year-old says the actions of his staff were “showed a lack of respect for the people of our government and the people they serve."
Immediately after the apology, Christie announced that he fired Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly -- the staff member who allegedly orchestrated the lane closures at the bridge last September.
"I terminated her employment because she lied to me,” he said."There’s no justification for that behavior. There’s no justification to ever lie to a governor."
Christie said he did not have any knowledge of the lane closure plan and was lied to when he asked staffers whether his office had any involvement in the situation.
The governor said he planned to have one-on-one discussions with his senior staff to try and uncover any additional information he does not yet know.
Christie also distanced himself from his campaign manager Bill Stepien. Stepien discussed the lane closures by email with Wildstein.
The governor said he was "disturbed by the tone and behavior and attitude and the callous indifference" of the correspondence Stepien exchanged. Christie said Stepien would not take over as head of the New Jersey Republican Party and would no longer consult for the Republican Governor's Association.
Christie planned to travel to Fort Lee on Thursday afternoon and personally apologize to the town’s mayor and people.
However, Sokolich asked Christie not to come because an apology today would be "premature."
"Based on what has happened it would appear an apology today is premature," he said. He said he is appreciative of the governor's swift action.
"I do appreciate it though. I would rather he not waste the gas," he said, adding that should the governor come, the town would welcome him with open arms.
Despite the mayor's comments, Christie said he still planned to go and apologize directly to the people.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey reduced the local lanes of the George Washington Bridge from three lanes to one heading from Fort Lee, N.J. into Manhattan on Sept. 9, 2013. Port authority officials said the unannounced lane closures were part of a traffic study.
The closures lasted for four days and the resulting jam backed up traffic into the North Jersey town – wreaking havoc on families trying to take children to school and even slowing down the town’s emergency medical response.
Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, said the lane closures were payback for him refusing to endorse Christie’s re-election campaign. The governor has touted his bipartisanship in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. Christie denied that he or any of his staff was involved and chalked the charges up to political posturing.
Christie said he gave his staff an hour before that press conference to let him know of any involvement by the administration in the lane closures. Receiving no responses, he denied and joked about the accusations, he said.
"I was blindsided," he said on Thursday. The governor added that he only found out about his administration's involvement after seeing the published communications in media reports on Wednesday morning.
Two Port Authority staffers resigned in the wake of the flap and a state inquiry was launched. One of the staffers who resigned was David Wildstein, a childhood friend of Christie and governor appointee to the Port Authority, who worked as the Director of Interstate Capital Projects.
The New Jersey Assembly Committee on Transportation, Public Works and Independent Authorities subpoenaed Wildstein’s email and text correspondence. On Wednesday, those messages were released to news outlets, giving weight to Sokolich’s claims and potentially linking the Christie Administration to the fiasco.
Wildstein is scheduled to testify, under oath, before the committee at noon at the Statehouse. His attorney filed a motion to quash that subpoena, but a state judge denied that filing.
It was on Aug. 13, 2013, three weeks before the closure, when Christie Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly supposedly sent an email to Wildstein eluding to put a plan to shut down part of the heavily-traveled bridge into action.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” the alleged message from Kelly read.
Moments later, Wildstein replied: “Got it.”
Weeks later, on Sept. 7, 2013, Wildstein emailed Kelly again about Fort Lee.
“I will call you Monday AM to let you know how Fort Lee goes,” the email read.
On Sept. 10, 2013, the second day of closures, a string of text messages between Wildstein and an unknown recipient focuses on the frustration of Fort Lee mayor Sokolich. Wildstein, in this conversation and several others, supposedly refers to him as the ‘Serbian’
Christie, known for his brash political style, said he was "blindsided" by the revelations and that despite his reputation, that he is "not a bully" who would go after a politician who did not support him.
Kelly has not commented on the controversy. Christie says he has not seen or spoken with her since the story broke.
Wildstein and his former co-worker Bill Baroni have both hired attorneys.
In addition to the state investigation into whether any laws were broken, a federal agency is also looking into the matter. The Department of Justice has received a request to launch an investigation into whether any federal laws were broken, federal officials tell NBC News.
"The Port Authority Office of Inspector General has referred the matter to us, and our office is reviewing it to determine whether a federal law was implicated," a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office said.
U.S. Senators from New Jersey Cory Booker and Robert Menendez both called the allegations “troubling” and say they plan to monitor the investigation.
“In the Senate's Commerce Committee, we have asked the Transportation Department for information to get to the bottom of the lane closures. I am awaiting and will evaluate additional facts," Booker, a Democrat said.