New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) said Wednesday he didn’t know that a senior official in his office was directly involved in an act of retribution against a New Jersey mayor who refused to endorse him in the 2013 gubernatorial race.
Christie said “people will be held responsible for their actions” and called the behavior of his deputy chief of staff “unacceptable” after she apparently sent inculpating emails last year about closing lanes for four days on the highly trafficked George Washington Bridge.
Christie will address the scandal during a press conference at 11 a.m. on Wednesday.
The New York Times reported Thursday morning that the U.S. Attorney in New Jersey -- a post Christie held before he was elected governor -- will open an inquiry in to the lane closures.
The connection between Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and the lane closures became apparent Wednesday morning with the release of emails between Kelly and Port Authority official David Wildstein, a Christie appointee, suggesting she was seeking to close the traffic lanes last September after Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich failed to endorse Christie in his reelection bid.
But the scandal is likely to continue to expand, as new details emerged that an elderly woman died due to the lane closures. The Bergen Record reported Wednesday night that the head of the borough of Fort Lee’s Emergency Medical Services department said responders were delayed on four separate medical emergencies, including one concerning a 91-year-old woman who later perished.
Christie’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the new details.
Wildstein is due to testify in front of the New Jersey state Assembly Transportation Committee on Thursday.
There, committee Chairman John Wisniewski, the lead Democrat on the investigation, told The Hill he expects further details surrounding the connections between the Christie administration and the lane closures to come to light.
“With each new answer comes a set of new questions,” he said. “The documents are a puzzle ... those [released today] are toplines, just the gist of what’s going on here. As we review documents and start piecing together other documents there may be more that becomes clear, and we’ll address that as it becomes clear,” he added.
Wisniewski suggested the scandal could engulf Bill Stepien, Christie’s former campaign manager who was just tapped to head up the New Jersey Republican Party, and Michael Drewniak, Christie’s spokesman. He said the committee hopes to hear testimony from Kelly at some point.
At the time of the emails, Christie was hailing bipartisan support for his election as he sought to run up a high margin in his bid — something observers believed would help his presidential prospects.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly emailed to Wildstein after Sokolich failed to back Christie.
“Got it,” Wildstein emailed back.
The Fort Lee mayor said Wednesday night that the apparent act of retribution against him was “the lowest level of political venom that you can even make up,” and called for both an apology from Christie to the people of his town and a potential criminal investigation into the situation.
“It’s not even remotely acceptable to do what you did,” Sokolich said on CNN. “And this in a time when New Jersey needs this like we need a hole in the head. We’ve now ensured that we’re going remain the butt of every political joke for the next 20 years on political misconduct.”
Christie had previously said he had no knowledge of, or involvement, in the lane closures and that they weren’t politically motivated. He repeated the assertion that he was unaware of the closures — and suggested a staffer misled him — in his Wednesday afternoon statement.
“What I’ve seen today for the first time is unacceptable. 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,” Christie said.
“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,” he added.
The emails provide the clearest link yet between Christie’s administration and the snarling traffic in Fort Lee, and raised immediate questions about how it might affect any plans Christie has to run for the White House.
Last month, Senate transportation committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) launched a probe of the bridge allegations.
Democratic state legislators in New Jersey are calling for a federal investigation into the scandal, while Democrats in Washington argued the emails are evidence that the governor lied when he said his administration had no hand in the lane closures. And many New Jersey Democrats remained unsatisfied with Christie’s statement.
Wisniewski told The Hill he is skeptical that Christie had no knowledge of the situation.
“It’s certainly not in keeping with the accepted and understood method on how the governor’s office has operated,” he said when asked whether he believed Christie’s claim.
“This is a very tightly run operation, in which there is a high degree of centralized control. And for the first time, we’re supposed to believe that there are independent rogue operators in his office?” he said.
Other reports indicated chaos behind the scenes as the typically well-oiled Christie operation scrambled to respond to the new revelations.
Former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean Sr., (R) a longtime Christie ally and mentor, told The Washington Post that “people are a bit stunned,” and advised Christie to “get it all out now” if there are further details concerning the closures.
Meanwhile, Washington Democrats saw the growing scandal as potentially damning to Christie’s presidential chances. The New Jersey governor, coming off a blowout reelection win in a blue state, has led recent polls of the possible Republican presidential field and was seen by many Democrats as the party’s greatest threat to holding the White House.
Democratic National Committee press secretary Michael Czin said Christie’s “statement tonight neither takes responsibility nor answers many of the central questions that were raised with this morning’s revelations.”
“The Governor, his administration and his allies broke the public trust, and New Jerseyans deserve more than his customary bluster and deflection,” said Czin. “It’s time that the so-called ‘straight talking’ governor takes some of his own advice — and he can do that by cooperating with all investigations surrounding the politically motivated lane closures and ensuring his staff and associates do the same.”
Keith Laing contributed.
--This story was first published on Wednesday at 8:26 p.m. and last updated on Thursday at 10:43 a.m.