TRENTON, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie responded Wednesday afternoon to email exchanges made public earlier in the day linking a top aide to the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal that has been under investigation.
“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. 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,” the governor said in a statement.
Hearings on the issue begin Thursday, a day after the emails were released.
As CBS 2’s Jessica Schneider reported, Christie had said previously that no one in his office or his campaign knew about the lane closures back in September.
But the email and text messages between Christie’s deputy chief of staff and the governor’s appointees to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey show a seemingly deliberate effort to create traffic gridlock by shutting Fort Lee’s access to the George Washington Bridge after its mayor refused to endorse Christie for re-election.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Christie aide Bridget Anne Kelly wrote to David Wildstein, a top political appointee at the Port Authority, which runs the George Washington Bridge, one of the world’s busiest spans.
“Got it,” Wildstein reportedly replied before ordering the closures.
Kelly wrote the email on Aug. 13, about a month before two of three local access lanes to the bridge were diverted, causing hour-long backups in Fort Lee during the first week of school. The lane closures were not announced in advance.
“They are the children of Buono voters,” Kelly joked – referring to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono who was challenging Christie.
Buono was furious at the comment.
“Those quotes were startling to me. They were horrifying, that somebody would talk about children in that way. It’s an abuse of trust in the public,” Buono said Wednesday night.
WEB EXTRA: READ THE EMAILS
Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, said the now-public documents have confirmed his suspicions.
“I didn’t want to jump in to this arena because I’ve got enough to do in Fort Lee. But it’s now pretty clear that there’s intentionality involved,” he told WCBS 880’s Levon Putney.
State Democrats have long said the gridlock-inducing lane closures were political retaliation.
“I don’t know if this is comical or if it’s criminal. We went through absolute hell and misery here in Fort Lee for four days,” said Sokolich.
Speaking to CBS News, Sokolich described the chain of events involved in the lane closures.
“I woke up one morning and I was told by the police chief that we were in complete traffic gridlock. Whenever something like that happens, there’s always an explanation for it – it’s either an accident on the Cross-Bronx, or some sort of emergency repair on the bridge, or something – there’s an event that occurs. So we started to do our investigation,” he said.
But over a period of days, the lanes remained closed and Sokolich said no one would respond to his attempts to find out why.
“We were calling everyone that we always call and have called for the last – since the existence of the bridge, and we were not getting any responses whatsoever. My chief was dealing with law enforcement on the Port Authority side, he wasn’t getting any responsive answers, and I as well,” he said. “We called, and called, and called; e-mail after e-mail after e-mail; cell phone – we just didn’t get a response.”
Sokolich said on the Monday morning when the closures happened, some had speculated that the closures were about him and a “failure to do something or not do something.” But initially, he did not believe it.
“But then come Tuesday, the issue was still unexplainable. Nobody was responding to us. We didn’t get any response whatsoever, so there was a little doubt in the back of my mind. We then find ourselves Wednesday – same thing, same issue; complete traffic gridlock. Families here in Fort Lee still can’t get their kids to school on time. Emergency services still can’t respond on time… and I’m getting inundated with e-mails,” he said.
In one instance involving an emergency vehicle, a 91-year-old woman lay unconscious waiting for paramedics and later died, according to a Bergen Record report.
The communications showed an unattributed observation to Sokolich’s plea for help on the second day of the closings: “Is it wrong that I’m smiling?”
Sokolich said when the traffic closures continued that Wednesday and Thursday with no answers about why they had happened, he became convinced they were a “punitive” measure.
The New York Port Authority ultimately ordered the lanes reopened that Friday.
He said if the reason behind the lane closures turns out to have been bogus, those responsible have to suffer the consequences for what they put drivers and people waiting on first responders through.
“I never in a million years would have ever imagined that for petty political gain, people would do what I now believe has been done, which was retribution against me. And that is the saddest, saddest political commentary that you could possibly imagine,” the mayor told Putney.
Sokolich said he wants an apology, as well a check for overtime after having to deal with four days of gridlock, 1010 WINS’ Al Jones reported.
“What I say is, ‘Shame on you,’” Sokolich told CBS News. “What I say is those cancers that have done this to my community need to go. They need to go right away.”
As CBS 2’s Tony Aiello reported, while Christie claimed last month that no one on his staff was involved with the lane closures, the documents tell a different story.
“I don’t have any recollection of ever having met the Fort Lee mayor,” the governor said last month.
Christie has maintained the lanes closures were for a traffic study and not punitive. But the emails and text messages among Christie aides and his two top appointees at the Port Authority — Wildstein and Bill Baroni — suggest they were involved.
The Port Authority’s executive director has testified there was no traffic study planned for the GWB.
The emails and texts were obtained by WCBS and other news outlets Wednesday and are the clearest sign yet that Christie aides were involved in the lane closures.
Wildstein, a childhood friend of the governor, is scheduled to testify under oath Thursday before a state Assembly committee conducting one of three ongoing investigations looking into whether the closures violated state or federal laws.
His lawyer announced Wednesday afternoon he was working to block his client from appearing before the committee.
Emails and text messages from September also mention Michael Drewniak, Christie’s top spokesman.
Earlier Wednesday, Buono issued a following statement on the scandal:
“Right now, we have no idea how far this scandal goes. The governor has created a culture where cavalierly endangering citizens’ lives to exact political retribution is an acceptable form of governance. It’s beneath the dignity of his office and a breach of New Jerseyans’ trust.
“Everyone who had knowledge of the closing should be terminated immediately and the Department of Justice should conduct a thorough investigation to determine whether other towns in New Jersey suffered because the governor wanted to get revenge,” said Buono.
Other elected officials also expressed outrage.
“To have that kind of crass indifference to what’s happening to people in Fort Lee is sickening,” said state Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville.)
Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson) called for Christie to take responsibility for the actions of those involved.
“Throughout this investigation I’ve remained quiet in order to allow the facts to come to light. After today’s revelations I can no longer remain silent. I am outraged that the safety of my constituents was callously jeopardized to inflict political retribution,” Pascrell said in a statement. “It’s time for the Governor to stop with the mockery and the denials and take responsibility for what his administration has done here in Fort Lee and perhaps elsewhere in New Jersey.”
New Jersey State Democratic Party Chairman John Currie also took issue with Christie.
“As hearings into this matter continue, Governor Christie owes us an explanation for why his core team appears to have such disdain for the public trust and how they could seriously abuse the power of the governor’s office right under his nose,” Currie said in a statement. “This time, I suggest that the governor try a new approach when answering questions: honesty.”
The governor abruptly postponed a scheduled event at an Ocean County fire hall Wednesday morning after reports detailing the email exchanges were published.
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