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“Humiliated,” Christie axes aide over traffic scandal

By Rebecca Kaplan / CBS News 7:55 AM January 9, 2014

He fired Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff, for lying

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie apologized to the people of New Jersey Thursday for last year’s lane closure on the George Washington Bridge last year and announced he was firing his deputy chief of staff for lying to him.

“I come out here today to apologize to the people of New Jersey. I apologize to the people of Fort Lee, and I apologize to the members of the state legislature. I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team. There’s no doubt in my mind that the conduct that they exhibited is completely unacceptable and showed a lack of respect for their appropriate role in government and for the people that were trusted to serve,” Christie said.

He announced that he had fired Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff, for lying when he sought the truth about the bridge closures from his staff a month ago.

What seemed to be a poorly-planned lane closure to conduct a traffic study exploded into a full-blown scandal Wednesday after a series of communications between a Christie aide and two of his political appointees to the Port Authority became public. The email and text messages suggested that Bridget Anne Kelly, one of Christie’s three deputy chiefs of staff, ordered the lane closures

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote in an Aug. 13 message to David Wildstein, a top executive at the Port Authority who was appointed by Christie.

“Got it,” replied Wildstein, who would later resign as a result of the outburst of anger surrounding the lane closings, which snarled traffic, prevented school buses from running on time, and even delayed emergency vehicles trying to reach a 91-year-old woman who was unconscious and later died.

Other exchanges reveal mockery of the school children who were late to school because of the traffic, with one person saying, “”They are the children of Buono voters,” a reference to Christie’s Democratic opponent in the gubernatorial election, State Sen. Barbara Buono.

The various messages, many sent from private email accounts, were produced by Wildstein in response to a subpoena from a panel of New Jersey lawmakers. He is being compelled to testify to the New Jersey Assembly’s transportation committee at noon Thursday, though his attorneys have tried to quash the subpoena with a variety of arguments, including a challenge to Assemblyman John Wisniewski’s signature, subpoena power and potential conflicts of interest.

A judge is scheduled to rule on the matter Thursday morning, although the fallout will likely continue even if Wildstein’s attorney prevails. The U.S. Attorney is opening an inquiry into the lane closures, the New York Times reported Thursday. Earlier in December, before the communications were revealed, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee announced it would launch its own investigation.

The messages are also littered with derogatory references to Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, who did not endorse Christie for re-election, suggesting a political motive for the bridge closings. He was derided an “idiot” and the “little Serbian” — though Sokolich is actually Croatian.

He certainly believes he was targeted as a form of retribution. “Their job is to keep us safe and to make the right decisions and to make those decisions with venomous motivation is completely inexcusable to me,” Sokolich said Wednesday. “I think people think they will never get caught and they can do what they want that is not the way it works.”

The messages were mostly sent through personal email accounts, and include or mention several Christie associates, including Bill Stepien, his campaign manager – who was named head of the New Jersey GOP Tuesday – and Michael Drewniak, his spokesman. Amid investigations by New Jersey legislators and the Port Authority’s inspector general, two Christie appointees, including Wildstein, resigned.

Despite the documents, Kelly, the deputy chief of staff, has her defenders. “I don’t know who the person is that gave the ultimate order,” Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., whose district includes Fort Lee, told the Bergen Record. He has known Kelly since she was an aide to a Republican state assemblyman. “This did not, the young lady did not just wake up one morning, when you see the emails, she didn’t just wake up one morning and decide let’s screw up the traffic in Fort Lee.”

Even if Christie is found to have had no knowledge of what his aides and associates did, it will inevitably remain a sticking point for any future political ambitions, including a potential 2016 presidential bid. In order to survive, he will have to face it head on, said CBS News political director John Dickerson.

“Chris Christie has styled himself as a truth-teller, a person who faces tough realities. And so, if he is going to run for president, that is the theme he will strike,” Dickerson said on “CBS This Morning.”

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