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Chris Christie apologizes in person to Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich as saga continues

(Reuters) - New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on Thursday fired a top aide who apparently helped orchestrate massive traffic jams at a busy commuter bridge to settle a score, saying he had been blindsided in the scandal that threatened to tarnish his political image.

As Christie apologized publicly for the abrupt lane closings seemingly ordered by some of his staff, and which he said he did not know about beforehand, the office of the U.S. Attorney in New Jersey said it was launching an investigation.

Revelations that his staff may have had a hand in plotting the four-day lane closures at the George Washington Bridge in September, causing hours-long jams that stalled commuters, school buses and ambulances, come as Christie has emerged as a powerful figure in the Republican Party and a possible presidential contender.

The controversy erupted with the release on Wednesday of emails showing Christie's aide and allies appearing to plan lane closings in what critics said was a bid to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, at the New Jersey end of the bridge, because he had declined to endorse Christie's re-election effort.

"I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team," Christie said. "I am who I am, but I am not a bully."

As the head of the party's governors association and a possible 2016 White House contender, the tough-talking governor has sought to present himself as a leader who can work with opponents and forge bipartisan alliances.

Christie said at his news conference that he dismissed his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, who in the most damning of the emails, wrote to a Port Authority executive in August, saying: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."

The executive, David Wildstein, replied: "Got it."

Wildstein later admitted ordering the lane closures and resigned his post. He supplied the emails to the media in response to a subpoena issued by a panel of state lawmakers.

Appearing before the panel on Thursday, Wildstein declined to answer questions, repeatedly invoking the constitutional protection not to say anything that might incriminate him.

The state Assembly's transportation, public works and independent authorities committee, which is probing the closures, voted to hold him in contempt.

The charge will be referred to a county prosecutor for determination of what it could mean for Wildstein, an Assembly spokesman said.

U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, whose job Christie held before being elected governor, has opened a probe into the decision to close the bridge lanes, his spokeswoman said.

"Our office is reviewing it to determine whether a federal law was implicated," Rebekah Carmichael said in a statement.

A local newspaper reported emergency responders were delayed in attending to four medical situations - one involving an unconscious 91-year-old woman who later died of cardiac arrest and another, a car accident, in which four people were injured.

At the news conference, Christie referred to the lane closings as a "rogue political operation."

"I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here," Christie said. "This was handled in a callous and indifferent way, and this is not the way this administration has conducted itself over the last four years."


Christie took reporters' questions at the packed news conference in his office that lasted nearly two hours.

He appeared contrite, describing himself repeatedly as "heartbroken" and apologizing several times to the public, and even to the media.

Toward the end of his lengthy appearance, he visibly relaxed, leaning against the podium, and resorted to more typical form, calling one reporter's question "crazy."

He later visited Fort Lee and apologized to Mayor Mark Sokolich, who told reporters he accepted the apology.

"It was a terrible thing and we are going to work to fix it," Christie said as he left the town hall.

Christie has enjoyed immense popularity at home since his election in 2009, particularly for his handling of recovery and rebuilding efforts after Superstorm Sandy devastated his state in late 2012. He was re-elected in a landslide in November.

But he is known as well for engaging in shouting matches, hurling insults and belittling challengers.

Christie told the news conference he was "nowhere near" beginning to consider a possible 2016 presidential bid but some saw the traffic scandal as taking a major toll on his political career.

A New York Daily News editorial pronounced his presidential aspirations as "all but kaput," saying he will be "lambasted and lampooned as a man of low character and horrible judgment."

Taking a poke at Christie's heft as well, the Daily News front page headline on Thursday read: "Fat chance now, Chris."

But David Axelrod, a former political adviser to President Barack Obama, said on Twitter that Christie handled the issue at the news conference "about as well as he could."

"Unless smoking gun turns up tying him to scheme, or others arise, he lives to fight another day," Axelrod tweeted.

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softtigers January 10 2014 at 1:21 PM

Believe me I'm not a huge Christie fan, but I wish we'd gotten that kind of openess and response from The Benghazi scandal. Which didn't hold up traffic but lost four lives, and we still don't know what the hell happened.

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1 reply to softtigers's comment
JAVIER ELIAS January 11 2014 at 10:20 AM

Don't believe you a bit . Between 2000 to 2008 60 americans lost their lives in attacks to embassies consulates and missions office around the whole world . Where you've being to criticize about such scandal. During those days the one who dare to talk about that would be consider out of order or anti patriotic . Americans life are all precious but all of a sudden the lost of this 4 patriots in Benghazi are the focus of your attention and the all the folks in FOX . Smell to me as political hypocrisy .

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zjlh January 10 2014 at 12:26 PM

News people are nuts and if the mayor doesn't accept the apology, he is nuts also. Not everyone in any organization can be controlled, ask Obama

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rschli7137 January 10 2014 at 12:07 PM

LOL! I love the righties on here crying in their beer! Benghazi, IRS, Fast and Furious, Obamacare, etc. etc. etc. Wah Wah Wah! Nothing to any of it! It's about time the press nails a conservatard. They've been hammering Obama for years.

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wpabrams January 10 2014 at 12:01 PM

News media loves to talk about anyone else but Obama and his azz wipes .

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rschli7137 January 10 2014 at 12:00 PM

Hey Christie...The Buck Stops Here!!! Christie has Sargeant Schultz Syndrome (SSS) "I know nothink!" "I hear nothink!" " I see nothink!" LOL!!!

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rdm443 January 10 2014 at 11:47 AM

lol smoking guns over a traffic jam boy this administration sure seems to have their priorities all crossed along with hp.

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Danny January 10 2014 at 10:59 AM

tell the truth chris it was because a anti muslim video then everyone will forgive and forget

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Bill January 10 2014 at 10:49 AM

Looks like the media is going to make this a scandal even if it isn't but they let BO and this administration get away with barely a question. If BO had been properly vetted he would not be president so the media has done the country a great disservice.

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3 replies to Bill's comment
cjsanders1 January 10 2014 at 10:24 AM

Republicans are always grilled over hot flames in the media these days.

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kerniejack January 10 2014 at 10:18 AM

At least Christie was transparent enough to open up emails and then fire someone. We are still awaiting assigned responsibility on NSA, FAST AND FURIOUS, BENGHAZI, IRS and OBAMACARE ROLLOUT.

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2 replies to kerniejack's comment
Mickylitz January 10 2014 at 10:35 AM

kerniejack ...
Now let's hear about Holder....Sebelius,,,Clinton and the rest of the best liars in the world within this administration get fired.....

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boadicea5 January 10 2014 at 12:22 PM

Christy didn't open up the emails, Journalists did that. Christy wouldn't dare open up emails to the public. ALL emails were just subpoenaed. It's possible we will soon hear more damaging emails on Bridgegate. The New York Times article pretty much demolishes the GOP/Fox News narrative about Benghazi. The IRS targeted both Liberals and Conservatives looking for tax exempt status. Obamacare is a wonderful thing. At last the Insurance co are made to offer reasonable coverage even for people like me who can afford to pay for health ins.

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