FORT LEE (PIX11) – New Jersey Governor Chris Christie gave a nearly two-hour mea culpa news conference in his office in the State House in Trenton Sunday, as the Bridgegate scandal continued to unfold. He took responsibility for the politically motivated intentional closing of entrance lanes to the bridge last September, but Christie also went to some length to point out that he did not know about his inner circle’s role in the debacle until emails proved it on Wednesday.
“I was blindsided,” exclaimed the governor, who also announced that he had fired his friend and deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly. Christie said that Kelly had been asked more than once by his chief of staff and chief counsel a month ago if she had known of the bridge closure being carried out as political payback, and she denied it.
Newly released emails and texts show otherwise.
“The predominant emotion I feel right now is sadness,” Governor Christie said. “Sadness that I was betrayed by a member of my staff, sadness that I had people that I had entrusted… [act] completely inappropriately.”
Emails released this week as the result of a subpoena seeking information into the incident show one electronic correspondence from Kelly last August, in which she writes, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
It was an apparent attempt against Mark Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee, where the west end of the bridge is located. Sokolich did not endorse Christie for governor, and this clearly appears to be retaliation.
“I’m telling you,” said Christie, regarding Sokolich and his endorsement, “until yesterday, if he’d walked into a room, I wouldn’t have been able to pick him out.”
He said that he had no idea that the Ft. Lee mayor was being pursued for an endorsement. Nonetheless, Kelly, who was in Christie’s inner circle, sent the email calling for bridge lane closures.
“I found this out at 8:50 yesterday morning,” the governor said. “By 9:00 this morning, Bridget Kelly was fired.”
Bridget Anne Kelly had sent the email order to shut down bridge lanes to someone Christie has known since high school, Port Authority project director David Wildstein. He, in turn, responded in another email, “Got it.”
“David and I were not friends in high school,” Christie said in response to a question from PIX11 asking him to describe his history with the Port Authority official whose position Christie approved.
“We went 23 years without seeing each other,” the governor said, “and when we did see each other, we passed in the hallways [of the State House]”
In the news conference, Christie distanced himself from Wildstein, who ended up making sure that the bridge closure happened for four days in September.
On Thursday, Wildstein was ordered by a judge to testify about the bridge closure in front of a state legislative committee. But because Wildstein kept repeating the phrase, “Under the advice of counsel, I assert my right to remain silent,” during testimony, the committee voted him to be in contempt.
Wildstein was also the person who, in subpoenaed emails, called Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich “this little Serbian.” He wrote that to Christie campaign manager and friend Bill Stepian, who called Mayor Sokolich “an idiot” for complaining about traffic backups caused by the bridge closures and saying that they were a major risk to public safety.
Regarding Stepian, Christie said, “I would not place him at the head of my political operation because of the lack of judgment that was shown in the emails that were revealed yesterday.” Christie said that he’d told Stepian to drop his attempts to become state GOP party chair, and had told Stepian that his services were no longer needed in the Republican Governors’ Association. Stepian had been a high level consultant in the organization, that Gov. Christie chairs.
During the hour and fifty minute news conference, Gov. Christie apologized numerous times, but he claimed a lack of knowledge about the politically motivated bridge closure more often.
Still, Christie was adamant when he said, “The buck stops at my desk.”
He also announced that he was going to go to Ft. Lee in person and apologize to its mayor, Mark Sokolich. The borough’s mayor accepted Christie’s apology when the governor arrived Thursday afternoon.
Whether or not New Jersey residents accept the governor’s contrition remains to be seen. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Northern New Jersey, however, confirmed on Thursday that it was launching a probe into the so-called Bridgegate scandal, to see if any federal laws were broken in the situation that stranded tens of thousands of people, including those in medical emergencies, for hours.