Christie fires aide, apologizes for traffic jams

Friday - 1/10/2014, 2:18am EST

David Wildstein walks from a hearing Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, at the Statehouse in Trenton, N.J. Wildstein, a former appointee of Gov. Chris Christie, is refusing to answer questions from a legislative committee looking into a scandal involving punitive traffic lane closures. The Christie administration stands accused of closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge, linking New York and New Jersey, in order to create a huge traffic backup as retribution against a local mayor for not endorsing the governor’s reelection. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

GEOFF MULVIHILL
Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- Republican Gov. Chris Christie fired one of his top aides on Thursday and apologized repeatedly for his staff's "stupid" behavior, insisting during a nearly two-hour news conference that he had no idea anyone around him had engineered traffic jams as part of a political vendetta against a Democratic mayor.

"I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team," Christie said as he addressed the widening scandal, which could cast a shadow over his expected run for the White House in 2016.

The famously blunt governor fielded dozens of questions from reporters with uncharacteristic patience and at times a sorrowful tone.

Christie, who had previously assured the public that his staff had nothing to do with the September lane closings that caused major backups at the George Washington Bridge, said he fired Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly "because she lied to me" when he demanded weeks ago that anyone who knew anything about the episode come forward.

The gridlock in Fort Lee delayed emergency vehicles, school buses and countless commuters for four days.

Kelly was the latest casualty in the scandal. Two other top Christie appointees have resigned in the past few weeks.

The investigation broke wide open on Wednesday, with the release of emails and text messages that suggested Kelly arranged the traffic jams to punish Fort Lee's mayor for not endorsing Christie for re-election.

In other developments:

-- The chief federal prosecutor in New Jersey, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, said he is "reviewing the matter to determine whether a federal law was implicated." The Legislature also is investigating. Using public resources for political ends can be a crime. Democratic Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a former prosecutor and mayor, said there was "no doubt" a crime was committed.

-- David Wildstein, a Christie appointee who resigned from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey after being implicated in the scandal, was found in contempt by a legislative committee on Thursday after he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refused to answer questions. The Port Authority operates the bridge and other area bridges and transit hubs.

-- Christie traveled to Fort Lee later in the day and apologized in person to Mayor Mark Sokolich. 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.

-- Six state residents, though, filed a federal lawsuit against Christie, the state, the Port Authority and others, calling the traffic jams "deliberate actions."

The political-payback allegations turned a local traffic furor into a national issue and raised questions about Christie's leadership and integrity as he lays the groundwork for a White House bid. Democrats at the national level have seized on the scandal as more evidence that Christie is a bully.

The governor brushed off questions about the effect on his presidential prospects, saying he was too busy governing the state to think about that.

"I am absolutely nowhere near beginning that consideration process," he said. "I haven't even been sworn in for my second term yet."

Afterward, some political analysts on both sides of the aisle said Christie would probably pull through OK -- provided there are no more surprises.

Democratic operative David Axelrod complimented Christie for handling the news conference "as well as he could," writing on Twitter: "Unless smoking gun turns up tying him to scheme, or others arise, he lives 2 fight another day."

Besides firing Kelly, Christie cut ties to former campaign manager Bill Stepien, asking him to withdraw a bid to become the next state GOP chairman. The governor said he was disturbed by the "callous indifference" displayed by Stepien in the emails released Wednesday.

Stepien had widely been seen as a potential campaign manager for Christie if he runs for president.

Christie said he is still looking into the traffic jam episode and will take action against other senior staff members if it is warranted.

Over and over, Christie took responsibility for the affair by virtue of his role as governor while simultaneously blaming his staff for doing something "stupid" and for not telling him the truth when he asked.

He said he saw the emails and text messages for the first time on Wednesday and was "blindsided" by what he read and outraged by the callous language. He said he was left "heartbroken" and "betrayed" by his tight-knit circle of advisers.