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War of words reignites bridge scandal for Christie

The controversy over lane closures last September at the George Washington Bridge have turned into a game of he said, he said, involving New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Port Authority appointee David Wildstein. The war of words has reignited the scandal, threatening to stymie Christie’s efforts to recover from the episode and preserve his future political prospects.

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The latest allegations surfaced Friday when the New York Times reported on a letter from Wildstein’s lawyer that claimed “evidence exists” that Christie knew about the lane closures as they were happening.

Christie’s office initially responded with a statement that said the letter “confirms what the Governor has said all along – he had absolutely no prior knowledge of the lane closures before they happened and whatever Mr. Wildstein’s motivations were for closing them to begin with.”

But his office followed up with a tougher missive on Saturday, sending an email to friends and allies blasting the Times’ reporting and going after Wildstein personally. Politico’s Mike Allen and Maggie Haberman detail the contents of the memo, including charges that Wildstein sued over a local school board election as a 16-year-old and had been accused by a high school social studies teacher of “deceptive behavior.”

The combative nature of the message reflects Christie’s style, but also signals the importance to the governor’s political career that the claims he made during last month’s two-hour news conference that he had no advance knowledge of the lane closures continue to hold up to scrutiny.

“I don’t know what else to say except to tell them that I had no knowledge of this — of the planning, the execution or anything about it — and that I first found out about it after it was over,” Christie said at the Jan. 9 event in Trenton. “And even then, what I was told was that it was a traffic study. And there was no evidence to the contrary until yesterday that was brought to my attention or anybody else’s attention.”

The Los Angeles Times’ Chris Megerian and Joseph Tanfani report that Christie could face more questions down the road about his handling of the Port Authority:

Problems at the Port Authority run deeper than the ongoing scandal, critics say. They say that Christie, a potential Republican presidential contender who rose to prominence as a corruption-fighting U.S. attorney and pledged as governor to reel in arcane government commissions, has used the agency to reward his friends and allies.

The troubled organization is the largest of its kind in the country, with a $7-billion budget, more than 7,000 employees, a dysfunctional management structure and a reputation as a secretive patronage haven.

As the bridge scandal drags on, there have been growing calls for Christie to step down as chair of the Republican Governors Association to focus on the challenges in his state.

Two top Republicans came to Christie’s defense on Sunday, saying they believed Christie should continue to lead the organization.

“I don’t think he should step down, I think he should stay there,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said during an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

On ABC’s “This Week,” Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan added: “I don’t think he should step down because nothing has been proven, and you always give a person the benefit of the doubt in those kinds of situations, in my judgment.”

And, one year after being snubbed, Christie also scored an invitation to this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, another sign that conservatives are rallying to his side as he battles allegations over the bridge controversy.

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Ruth Tam contributed to this report.

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