THE presidential hopes of New Jersey governor Chris Christie were shunted sideways yesterday after he admitted his aides deliberately orchestrated traffic jams to punish a political rival.
The Republican governor was forced to apologise at a press conference, saying he was “embarrassed and humiliated” by the actions of his aides and had fired deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly for lying to him.
His aides took revenge on a Democrat mayor who had failed to support Mr Christie during his re-election campaign last year by having two lanes of the George Washington Bridge linking New York to Fort Lee closed down.
Facing the media yesterday, Mr Christie said: “I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team. There’s no doubt in my mind the conduct they exhibited is completely unacceptable. I am heartbroken somebody I permitted to be in that circle of trust betrayed my trust.”
The episode recalls the bad old days of New Jersey where Mob-style politics ruled and raises grave issues about Mr Christie’s management style.
New Jersey has long suffered stereotyping due to its links to organised crime which was featured in television shows such as The Sopranos.
Looking sheepish, Mr Christie said that he wanted to apologise to the people of New Jersey and the town of Fort Lee and its mayor, Mark Sokolich.
He claimed that he was “stunned” and had been “left sick” by the plot but said it was the “exception not the rule” of his leadership.
Mr Christie called the culprits “so stupid and so deceitful” and said that they had lied to him four weeks ago when he called them all in to demand they tell him everything.
He said: “Ultimately I am responsible for what happens under my watch, the good and the bad, and when mistake are made I have to own up to them.”
The row dates back to 9 September last year when two of the three lanes to the George Washington Bridge, one of the New York City’s arterial routes and the busiest bridge in the world, were closed.
Traffic chaos ensued for four days during the first week of school term. Paramedics said response times were three times as long as they would otherwise have been. One 91-year-old woman died at hospital after emergency services took seven minutes to get to her. A search for a missing seven-year-old boy was also hampered, as was response to a traffic accident.
However Mr Christie’s allies made sport of the chaos. In an e-mail apparently ordering the lane closures, Ms Kelly wrote to David Wildstein, another senior Christie official: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
He replied: “Got it.”
Later texts mocked concerns that school buses filled with children were stuck in jams.
Mr Wildstein wrote: “They are the children of Buono voters,” referring to Christie’s political opponent Barbara Buono.
A text exchange between Mr Wildstein, who is a school friend of Mr Christie, and an unnamed person reads: “Is it wrong that I am smiling?’ The reply is: ‘No’.”
The official reason was that a traffic survey was taking place – but none was ever produced. The row has been rumbling on for months but exploded last night with the release of the e-mails, which were subpoenaed by an inquiry.
Mr Wildstein has already resigned from his post with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge.
The e-mails do not show Mr Christie asked for the lanes to be closed but do show his top aides were involved, something he previously denied.
New Jersey senator Ray Lesniak demanded a federal inquiry. He tweeted: “Time for a federal grand jury. This smells of corrupt use of government authority at the highest levels.”
Mr Christie was re-elected last year with a landslide. During the 2012 presidential race he ruled himself out but has continued to criticise the Republican establishment and had been seen as a strong candidate for 2016.