A contrite Gov. Chris Christie apologized Thursday for the role a top staffer played in purposely creating days of choking traffic jams in early September at the Fort Lee entrance to the George Washington Bridge.
Damning emails released Wednesday seemingly revealed that Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Ramsey native Bridget Anne Kelly, worked with a Port Authority executive to orchestrate punitive lane closures at Fort Lee’s entrance to America’s busiest bridge.
Christie did not mince words Thursday in revealing that he’d fired Kelly for lying to him about her role in bringing traffic to a halt atop the Palisades. He said her actions were “stupid” and that she was partially to blame for his early -- and now apparently inaccurate -- insistence that the lane closures were part of a traffic study.
"I'm sick over this," Christie said. "What I want the people of New Jersey to know is that this is the exception, not the rule.”
“I trusted that I was being told the truth, and I wasn’t,” Christie said. “And I wasn’t by somebody who I placed a significant amount of trust in. ... How incredibly sad and betrayed I felt."
The potential presidential candidate took questions for more than an hour in front of a contingent of national media not seen since at the statehouse in such numbers since former Gov. Jim McGreevey’s resignation nearly a decade ago.
The serious tone of the press conference stood in bold relief when played alongside a clip of Christie sarcastically answering a question about the “traffic study” from the same wooden podium several months ago, in which he told reporters that he personally placed the cones that closed off the toll lanes.
The governor, who was reelected in a landslide in November, also pulled his support for the appointment of his campaign manager, Bill Stepien, as state Republican Party chairman. More importantly for future campaigning plans, Christie said he had severed political ties with Stepien.
“I would not place him at the head of my political operation because of the lack of judgment that was shown in the emails,” Christie said.
Christie said he would cooperate with any investigation into the closures and did not rule out additional firings.
The governor later travelled to Fort Lee, where he apologized to its mayor, Mark Sokolich, and its citizens.
Sokolich accepted Christie's apology, and also said late Thursday afternoon that he believed the governor had no role in the closures.
"The most important concern that we had was that this never, ever happens again in the future. We were unconditionally and unequivocally given that assurance," Sokolich said after the closed meeting.
Fort Lee residents waiting outside borough hall to hear from the governor had mixed reactions. The lane closures slowed emergency response time to at least four incidents, including reaching an unconscious 91-year-old woman who later died from cardiac arrest.
Fort Lee resident Julio Balmaseda said he was happy Christie took action against those involved.
"The traffic here is bad as it is," Balmaseda said. "For somebody to do something intentionally that disrupts that even more, it's not nice. And what do they have to gain by it? They're not punishing the mayor. They're not only punishing the people of this town, but people from all over. I mean, this is the busiest bridge in the world."
Emails first obtained by The Record show Kelly told a Port Authority official close to Christie that it was “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” about two weeks before the lanes were closed.
“Got it,” replied the Port Authority executive, David Wildstein, who resigned last month as national media and incensed local politicians turned up the heat on the scandal.
Wildstein appeared before a Legislative hearing Thursday afternoon a judge refused to quash the committee’s subpoena. He continually invoked his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination, and the committee found him in contempt.
Christie said he was shocked "by the abject stupidity" in the emails. He's now asking himself: "What did I do wrong to make these folks think that it was okay to lie to me?"Some are predicting the fallout from the scandal could prove troublesome for Christie, who is widely believed to be planning a run for the White House in 2016.