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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."

'HEARTBROKEN' AND APOLOGETIC

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.

Join the discussion

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airamrka January 09 2014 at 7:56 PM

I am no fan of Christie but this is much to do about nothing that he involved in.

Flag Reply +2 rate up
sopranosly January 09 2014 at 7:56 PM

Why is this news ? A traffic jam in NJ is big news. I f I the govener I'd tell them to stick it up there Holland Tunnel and get over it.

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ftlshome January 09 2014 at 8:10 PM

i want to hear what the fired employees have to say, it's a matter of time before one or all come forward, i am alittle surprised none so far, so is it possible the gov. did not know first hand, we shall see.

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1 reply
Gina ftlshome January 09 2014 at 8:16 PM

I hear ya ' !!!!

Flag Reply 0 rate up
wvpcorp January 09 2014 at 8:16 PM

At what point will the media stop attaching "gate" to every scandel and think they're being creative?

Flag Reply 0 rate up
Karen January 09 2014 at 8:18 PM

These dirty politic's make me wonder how many more incidents have been planned by each party against each other OR same party member's setting up another to get them out of the picture. Vicious, self-serving barracuda's are all they are! Tend to believe this is only the tip of the iceberg.

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noteugene January 09 2014 at 8:25 PM

Hard for me to believe he knew nothing about what his aides were doing. That's the same position Obama takes. I don't believe him either. It's always someone else's fault. I'm also curious to how much the aides were paid to step down, resign or be fired or keep quiet? We are talking about N.J. & politics. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe his apology to the Mayor was sincere but my skeptical nature thinks he just did that because if he intends to seek the presidency & there wasn't much else he could do. It's called covering your ###. Would you want to vote for someone who is so petty as to cause the commonwealth hardship just to make a pouting point?

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1 reply
midcwby noteugene January 09 2014 at 8:31 PM

Not maybe be fired but FIRED!!!!! appearantly these people are easier to be bought off than the Obama people cause not once have any of them been fired CLOWN!!!!

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1 reply
noteugene midcwby January 09 2014 at 8:37 PM

You misread my post. I did not say maybe fired.

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Janie January 09 2014 at 8:26 PM

Christie is one of the best Govs we've ever had in NJ. The truth of what happened will prevail and the outcome will be that some members of his loyal staff let the power of their positions go to their heads causing them to make the most stupid decision of their careers. Christie would never have come up with such a stupid decision.

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Edwin Baiye January 09 2014 at 8:26 PM

By immediately coming out to explain his stance and distance himself from the actions of his aides, Gov. Christie has demonstrated what it means to be a statesman. If subsequent events prove that he truly had no prior knowledge of what his aides were doing, then he still has a good chance of being president one day

Flag Reply +3 rate up
cactusj8 January 09 2014 at 8:27 PM

I want to know the answers to Travel Gate, File Gate, Bengazi Gate, IRS Gate, Cert Gate, Golf Gate, BP Gate, ...

Flag Reply +1 rate up
2 replies
midcwby cactusj8 January 09 2014 at 8:28 PM

well I guess you can see how one leader handles things versus the other one fires and one promises

Flag Reply +1 rate up
Moreira cactusj8 January 09 2014 at 8:29 PM

And Chris Christie Gate.

Flag Reply 0 rate up
newbury57 January 09 2014 at 8:28 PM

Gov. Christie is my friend and I can tell you that he had nothing to do with it.

Flag Reply +3 rate up
1 reply
Kate newbury57 January 09 2014 at 8:45 PM

Laugh.

Flag Reply 0 rate up
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