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Christie Denies Involvement, Fires Aide in Bridge Scandal

At a press conference Thursday, the New Jersey governor said he was misled when he asked his staff about the closure of bridge lanes -- which some speculate was political payback for a mayor's decision not to endorse Christie for re-election.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie denied knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the September closure of George Washington Bridge access lanes and said he fired a top aide who played a role in the scandal.

Christie, speaking at an 11 a.m. press conference, repeatedly said that as governor, he was ultimately responsible for the situation. But he also emphasized said he wasn't involved in the decision to close the lanes that led to days of traffic jams in Fort Lee, N.J. and said he was misled when he asked his staff about it.

"I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution," Christie said.

On Wednesday, news outlets published emails that revealed Christie's deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly signaled to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that the lanes -- connecting local traffic to the bridge -- should be closed.

"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," she wrote in an email to the Port Authority.

"Got it," responded David Wildstein, the authority's director of interstate capital projects and a Christie ally.

The result was severe traffic in Fort Lee that reportedly made school buses late and delayed emergency responders. Some have speculated the lane closures were political payback for Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich's decision not to endorse Christie in his re-election effort. Sokolich is a Democrat. Christie says he did not seek Sokolich's endorsement.

Christie said he would attempt to meet one-on-on with Sokolich Thursday to apologize to him and the residents of Fort Lee.

Christie said he was "heartbroken" that people in his "circle of trust" had misled him. He said he was "blindsided" when he saw the emails in the media Wednesday, the first time there was concrete proof that there was apparently a political component to the lane closures.

The governor said he fired Kelly this morning. Wildstein resigned in December. Christie also says he told his campaign manager Bill Stepien to take his name out of running for chairman of the state's Republican party. Messages showed Stepien apparently discussing the bridge situation with Wildstein.

"Ultimately, I am responsible for what happens under my watch -- the good and the bad -- and when mistakes are made, then I have to own up to them and take the action I believe is necessary," Christie said.

Christie said he had previously asked members of his staff about the lane closures and was told they weren't involved -- which is why he had adamantly denied such accusations for months. "I had no reason to believe they weren't telling me the truth," Christie said. "It is heartbreaking to me I wasn't told the truth. I'm a very loyal guy, and I expect loyalty in return."

The revelations contained in the emails could be damaging for Christie, who has sought to portray himself as a leader who is above partisan politics. Instead, they paint a portrait of Christie as a political bully.

Reporters Thursday questioned whether the emails were indicative of a tone Christie set in his administration that may have encouraged aides to pursue such hardball political tactics. "This is not the tone I've set over the last four years in this building," Christie responded.

One journalist also asked Christie how he could be sure his staff hadn't enacted other serious acts of political retribution. Christie said he "couldn't certify" there haven't been other similar incidents.

Christie pledged to work cooperatively with investigators looking into the situation. A former U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, Christie declined to say whether he believed the situation warranted a federal investigation. As his press conference began, the U.S. Attorney's office announced it would launch a preliminary inquiry.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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