TRENTON, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Gov. Chris Christie apologized Thursday for the “abject stupidity” of his staff, insisting he had no idea anyone around him had engineered traffic jams as retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee.
CBS 2 Political Reporter Marcia Kramer described Christie’s appearance at a Thursday news conference as “bedraggled, puffy, (with) sleepless eyes and a determination to re-establish his reputation as a straight shooter.”
“I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue. In this planning, or its execution, and I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here, regardless of what the facts ultimately uncovered, this was handled in a callous and indifferent way,” Christie said.
As CBS 2’s Jessica Schneider reported Thursday night, Christie 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.
“I am a very sad person today. That’s the emotion I feel,” Christie said. “A person close to me betrayed me. A person I gave high governmental office to, betrayed me. A person I trusted and counted on for five years betrayed me.”
The governor also arrived at Fort Lee’s municipal building shortly after 4 p.m. to apologize in person to Mayor Mark Sokolich. Christie met with Sokolich, the mayor’s wife and son for about 40 minutes, CBS 2’s Tony Aiello reported.
“I apologized, that’s what I came here to do,” Christie said outside Borough Hall. “A very warm and productive meeting between me and the mayor.”
Sokolich said earlier in the day that he accepted the governor’s apology.
“There’s not an ounce of venom in my system. I take no pleasure in hearing about people getting fired, in hearing about people losing their careers, in hearing about people being embarrassed in the national media setting,” Sokolich said.
Christie had previously assured the public that his staff had no involvement in the lane closings that caused major backups at the George Washington Bridge.
“I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team,” Christie said during a nearly two-hour long news conference in Trenton. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the conduct that they exhibited is completely unacceptable and showed a lack of respect for their appropriate role of government and for the people that we’re trusted to serve.”
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During a previous news conference, Christie had called a Democratic-led state investigation into the incident politically motivated and joked that he had personally put up traffic cones to close the lanes.
“I would never have come out here four or five weeks ago and made a joke about these lane closures if I had ever had an inkling that anyone on my staff would have been so stupid but to be involved and then so deceitful as to not disclose the information of their involvement to me when directly asked by their superiors,” Christie said.
Emails and text messages released Wednesday suggested Kelly and a top Christie appointee at the Port Authority engineered traffic jams in Fort Lee last September to punish the town’s mayor for not endorsing Christie for re-election last fall.
WEB EXTRA: Read The Emails
Two of three lanes connecting Fort Lee to the heavily traveled GWB were closed, causing crippling traffic jams in the town.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote in August in a message to David Wildstein, the top Christie appointee at the Port Authority.
“Got it,” Wildstein replied. A few weeks later, Wildstein closed two of three lanes connecting Fort Lee to the bridge.
Kelly wrote the email on Aug. 13, about a month before the lanes closures which caused hour-long backups in Fort Lee during the first week of school. The lane closures were not announced in advance.
The messages do not directly implicate Christie, but they contradicted his assertions that the closings were not punitive and part of a traffic study and that his staff was not involved.
Christie acknowledged Thursday that was a lie, because his staff didn’t tell him what they had done. The Port Authority’s executive director has also testified there was no traffic study planned for the bridge.
“I was blindsided yesterday morning,” Christie said. “That was the first time I knew about this, it’s the first time I had seen any of the documents that were revealed yesterday.”
The Assembly panel that’s been investigating the lane closures will now turn to the former Christie official at the center of this latest bombshell.
“We will continue to press our inquiry. I think next will be Bridget Kelly, the governor’s former deputy chief of staff. We need to hear from her. We need to understand what she meant by ‘it’s time to create some traffic problems in Fort Lee’ and under who’s authorization she sent that email,” Assembly Transportation Committee Chair John Wisniewski told WCBS 880 on Thursday afternoon.
Wisniewski said the emails came to light because of the subpoenas issued by the Assembly panel.
“I don’t feel good about what I’ve uncovered because it’s government abuse at its worst. People were entrusted with a great deal of authority and they abused it and they abused it for the worst possible reason – for partisan political reasons that absolutely meant nothing,” Wisniewski told WCBS 880.
One of the released texts came from Sokolich, who pleaded on the morning of Sept. 10: “The bigger problem is getting kids to school. Help please. It’s maddening.”
Within minutes of Sokolich’s plea, an unidentified person commented in a text message: “Is it wrong that I am smiling?”
Someone joked in another text that the youngsters referred to by Sokolich “are the children of Buono voters,” a reference to Christie’s Democratic opponent for governor, state Sen. Barbara Buono.
Sokolich on Wednesday called it “appalling” that the traffic jams appeared to have been deliberately created.
“Their job is to keep us safe and to make the right decisions and to make those decisions with venomous motivation is completely inexcusable to me,” he said.
Christie announced his plan to travel to Fort Lee at his Trenton press conference.
“I believe that all of the people who were affected by this conduct deserve this apology and that’s why I’m giving it to them,” he said. “Ultimately, I am responsible for what happens under my watch.”
The mayor rebuffed Christie’s visit, but the governor insisted he would go anyway. Christie said he was especially puzzled about his aides’ actions because he didn’t know his campaign had been seeking the mayor’s endorsement.
“This guy was never on my radar,” he said.
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As the controversy heated up over the past few weeks, Wildstein resigned, as did Port Authority deputy executive director Bill Baroni, another Christie appointee.
Port Authority Chairman David Samson, who was appointed by Christie, issued a statement Wednesday saying he was “extremely upset and distressed” about the emails and text messages.
He said no one on the board had any knowledge of the lane closures until they received an email from Executive Director Patrick Foye ordering the lanes reopened.
The U.S. attorney in New Jersey, Paul Fishman, said Thursday he was “reviewing the matter to determine whether a federal law was implicated.”
Wildstein refused to answer questions Thursday before a state Assembly committee, asserting his constitutional right to remain silent. A judge earlier refused to quash his subpoena.
Christie on Thursday said he also asked his choice for state GOP chairman, his former campaign manager Bill Stepien, to withdraw consideration for the post because of the “callous indifference” he displayed in emails on the traffic jams.
“It makes me ask about me: What did I do wrong to have these folks think that it was OK to lie to me,” Christie said.
Beyond the specifics of the lane closures, critics suggest the incident reflects a darker side of Christie’s brand of politics that contradicts the image he’d like to project as he eyes the presidency.
The governor repeatedly sidestepped criticism that he bullied adversaries in an overwhelming re-election victory in November.
“The governor had a 20-point lead. Why they needed to coerce the mayor of Fort Lee to make an endorsement by shutting his town down is beyond me. But it also speaks to a petty vindictiveness that seems to be part of the culture because if you look at some of these emails, there’s a callous disregard for what was going on,” said Wisniewski.
WATCH: ‘I Am Not A Bully’
“I am who I am, but I am not a bully and what I will tell you is that the folks who have worked with me over a long period of time would, I believe, tell you that I’m tough, but I’ve shown over the last four years and the tone that I’ve set here that I’m willing to compromise, that I’m willing to work with others,” Christie said Thursday.
In less than two weeks, he is scheduled to celebrate his second inauguration in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty on historic Ellis Island, a symbolic beginning to a second term designed to expand Christie’s bipartisan appeal.
He also is expected to unveil his second-term priorities, solidifying his presidential resume, in a state-of-the-state address later this month, while beginning an aggressive national travel schedule as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
Baroni, Kelly, Stepian and Wildstein are the first four heads to roll under the cloud of this scandal, Aiello reported.
In Fort Lee, residents reacted to the governor’s comments.
“I just think highly of Christie and I don’t think that he could have done anything else other than fire them,” one resident said.
“To think that one of his closest associates would even think of doing that, that doesn’t spell good for the boss,” said another man.
Kelly, 41, was not available for comment Thursday, but her Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as her personal email account, appeared to have been disabled.
She served as a chief of staff for Republican state Assemblyman David Russo before she landed a spot with Christie in 2010 – after he defeated incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine. She but she did not work on either of his gubernatorial campaigns.
Kelly was promoted to deputy chief of staff in April.
Shortly after Christie’s press conference wrapped up, the Democratic National Committee issued the following statement:
“For nearly two hours today, Chris Christie stood up and repeatedly made himself out to be the victim. He lauded himself for swift action in firing staffers for lying to him. And he argued that this was not reflective of the culture he’s created in his office,” the statement said. “But Chris Christie is not the victim. The people of New Jersey who trusted him are.”
The DNC blasted the governor, saying he “needs to focus less on his ego.”
“He didn’t take ‘swift action’. He ignored questions and responsibility for more than 120 days, until his administration was finally caught red-handed,” the statement went on.
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