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‘Blindsided’ by bridge lane closure scandal, NJ Gov. Chris Christie apologizes

January 9, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
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When several lanes on the George Washington Bridge were closed for four consecutive days in September, legislators began to ask why. Newly released emails and text messages suggest it was aimed at a politician for not endorsing Gov. Chris Christie's re-election. Kwame Holman reports on the governor's response to the scandal.

GWEN IFILL: Now, the traffic jam that’s jammed up a governor and possible presidential candidate in New Jersey.

Republican Chris Christie spent nearly two hours today responding to allegations that his closest aides have been punishing his political foes.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE, R-N.J.: I come out here today to apologize to the people of New Jersey.

KWAME HOLMAN: Governor Christie started with a mea culpa that the scandal happened on his watch, while insisting he was blindsided.

CHRIS CHRISTIE: I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team. I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution. And I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here.

KWAME HOLMAN: The issue unfolded in September at the George Washington Bridge, one of the busiest in the world. It connects Fort Lee, N.J., to New York City.

Without warning, several vehicle lanes were shut down for four consecutive days, triggering backups that stretched for miles. The governor says he was told the closures were for a traffic study. But newly revealed e-mails and text messages suggest it was aimed at punishing Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, for not endorsing Republican Christie’s reelection.

In one message, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, wrote to a Port Authority executive: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Several weeks later, that executive, David Wildstein, ordered the closures.

Christie at first had denied it was an act of political vengeance. this morning, he fired Kelly, saying she lied to him.

CHRIS CHRISTIE: I have had a tight-knit group of people who I trust implicitly. I had no reason to believe they weren’t telling me the truth. It is heartbreaking to me that I wasn’t told the truth.

KWAME HOLMAN: New Jersey’s state legislature has been investigating the traffic tie-ups since allegations of political wrongdoing first surfaced four months ago. And, today, the U.S. attorney in New Jersey opened a separate inquiry to determine whether the bridge lane closures violated any federal laws.

Wildstein, who resigned in December, invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination today, refusing to answer questions at a legislative hearing.

As for the alleged target of the closings, the Fort Lee mayor, the governor said, he’s mystified.

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Mayor Sokolich was never on my radar screen. He was never mentioned to me as somebody whose endorsement we were even pursuing.

KWAME HOLMAN: Sokolich had his own take a few hours later in Fort Lee.

MAYOR MARK SOKOLICH, D-Fort Lee, N.J.: This is a complete disruption of our lives, politically, professionally, personally. It’s been a rather trying period. I never knew that I could possibly garner this much attention, especially for something I didn’t do, as opposed to something I did do.

KWAME HOLMAN: The mayor said he found it all appalling, but he welcomed what he called Christie’s decisive action.

Later, Christie visited Fort Lee and apologized in person to Sokolich. The governor brushed aside any talk of a possible presidential bid in 2016 or how the scandal might affect his chances.