BRICK — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Thursday he would have stopped aides from blocking lanes to the George Washington Bridge last fall if he had known about the plan in advance, saying outright what he has implied in previous denials about the traffic jam scandal that’s engulfed his administration.
Christie told a town hall audience in the shore suburb of Brick that no one talked to him before lanes were closed in September to create gridlock in the town of Fort Lee after its Democratic mayor did not endorse Christie, a Republican. Emails show Christie aides orchestrated the plan.
“It was a stupid thing to have been done, I knew nothing about it, had nothing to do with it, and if anybody had come to me and told me they were going to do this, I would have stopped it,” Christie said. He had repeatedly denied any knowledge of the planning or execution of the lane closings and has said he only found out later.
The closings have overshadowed Christie, 51, a star of the national Republican Party, as he contemplates a 2016 presidential run. Federal and legislative investigations are underway. A review by Christie-hired lawyers found he had no advance knowledge of the lane closings, and it blamed the plot on a former aide of his and a Christie-appointed operative at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency that runs the bridge. Democrats blasted the report as a sham.
Christie has been holding town halls in Republican-friendly communities as he tries to rebound from the scandal. The mostly supportive crowds seldom bring up the traffic jams, or other allegations of political maneuvering by his administration, that members tried to leverage Superstorm Sandy aid to win approval for a favored redevelopment project. The governor has repeatedly denied the accusations.
Christie supporter Len Ludovico of Point Pleasant Beach brought up the bridge scandal Thursday, asking the governor how to respond when friends claim the administration encouraged retribution politics.
“Point to something, factually, that proves that,” Christie replied. “If, in fact, I created a culture where people were going after each other, then how did we do all these things together with Republicans and Democrats?”
Christie cited agreements forged with the Democratic-led Legislature on public employee pension reforms and caps on property tax increases. He noted that he won re-election in November with 61 percent of the vote and that more than 60 Democrats endorsed him.
Such a big re-election victory in a Democratic-leaning state can be used to court the Republican nomination for president. But it also may be central to the scandal, which could upend any political plans.
The traffic jam operation was set in motion by the former aide, Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly, who wrote, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” after she confirmed that Mayor Mark Sokolich would not be endorsing the governor.
The Christie appointee at the Port Authority, David Wildstein, who had dealt frequently with Sokolich on traffic issues approaching the bridge, replied, “Got it.”
At the town hall, Christie also slipped in a quote from “The Godfather: Part II.” When asked about continuing attacks by Democrats, he replied, “This is the business we’ve chosen,” echoing a line uttered by a gangster in the film.
Also Thursday, a letter from Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who has alleged she received the threat over storm aid, shed light on why she did not come forward about the threat.
In the letter to the New Jersey lawmakers investigating the lane closures, obtained by The Associated Press, Zimmer said she kept quiet for eight months because Christie, a former federal prosecutor, still has friends in the U.S. attorney’s office. She said she wrote the letter in response to an announcement that Christie intends to propose legislation that would punish elected officials who fail to immediately report suspected misconduct.