New Jersey Politician Wants Investigation into Christie Bridge Controversy

By Catherine E. Shoichet and Jason Hanna | CNN

(CNN) — A New Jersey state senator called Thursday
for a federal investigation into Gov. Chris Christie's administration
over allegations that top Christie appointees orchestrated traffic jams
near the country's busiest bridge last year as part of a political
vendetta against a city mayor.

September lane closures
near the George Washington Bridge connecting New Jersey to Manhattan
snarled traffic for days in Fort Lee, New Jersey — an event that was
not only inconvenient but also potentially delayed emergency services,
endangering people's lives, New Jersey state Sen. Ray Lesniak told CNN's
“New Day.”

“This crosses a line that
is rarely crossed: People's lives were in danger,” said Lesniak, a
Democrat. “Endangering people's lives — that's not politics. That's why
the U.S. attorneys have to get involved.”

The controversy
intensified Wednesday with the surfacing e-mails suggesting that
appointees of the Republican governor orchestrated the closures to
punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who wouldn't support
Christie at the polls. Christie and his staff originally blamed the
closures and the traffic delays on a mishandled traffic study.

In response to the e-mail
firestorm, Christie said Wednesday that he was misled by staff. He
called the conduct outrageous and said he knew nothing about it.

“This behavior is not
representative of me or my administration in any way,” he said, “and
people will be held responsible for their actions.”

Christie is expected to hold a news conference at 11 a.m. Thursday in Trenton, his office said. CNN will carry it live.

The city has said that an
elderly woman who suffered a heart attack died after paramedics were
delayed in reaching her because of traffic problems. Details of the
woman's death haven't been released, but Lesniak suggested Thursday that
the issue should be part of the investigation.

“There have been serious
consequences as a result of these actions. Reckless endangerment of
people's lives … and someone died,” he said.

Lesniak called for an investigation hours earlier on his Twitter account.

“Wow! Time for a federal grand jury. This smells of corrupt use of government authority at the highest levels,” he tweeted.

While Lesniak is calling
for a federal investigation, U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the
Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the Port Authority, indicated
his desire for an investigation in December. He asked Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to review this incident.

“Unwarranted lane
closures with no public notice can have serious ramifications on
interstate commerce and safety in the region,” the West Virginia
Democrat said in a prepared statement last month. “I continue to have
serious concerns about the actions of this agency.”

'Time for some traffic problems'

The correspondence,
subpoenaed by Democrats investigating the matter and spiced with tough
Jersey political talk and expletives, is the most damaging evidence so
far supporting their assertions that the move was orchestrated because
Sokolich didn't endorse Christie's re-election.

The mayor said the
traffic mess created serious hardships for commuters and other
residents, and affected public safety in his community.

The exchanges began
three weeks before access lanes to the bridge were closed, causing heavy
traffic backups between September 9 and 13, two months before Election

“Time for some traffic
problems in Fort Lee,” Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's deputy chief of
staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, said in an e-mail
to David Wildstein, then the highest-level appointee representing the
state at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates
the bridge connecting the two states.

“Got it,” Wildstein replied.

In another message about
school buses with students on board caught in the traffic jams,
Wildstein writes, “they are the children of Buono voters,” apparently
referring to Barbara Buono, Christie's Democratic opponent in last
November's gubernatorial election.

Those cited in the series of e-mails and text messages did not respond to requests for comment or to verify the communications.

Wildstein, who has left his job, is expected to appear at a legislative hearing Thursday.

Democratic New Jersey
Assembly Deputy Speaker John Wisniewski said the e-mails call into
question the integrity of the governor's office.

Christie, he said, “has a lot of explaining to do.”

“I do not believe the
governor called the Port Authority and said, 'Close some lanes.' But I
did say I hold him responsible for the atmosphere. Now finding that that
atmosphere existed in his own office is what I find really troubling,”
Wisniewski said.

Christie's name did not appear in the e-mails, he added.

Emergency services disrupted

Sokolich told CNN's “The
Situation Room” the e-mails suggested that political motives behind the
lane closures have led him to believe that Christie is more clued-in
than he's admitted.

“I'm rooting that the
highest elected official in the state of New Jersey isn't involved. But
I'm beginning to question my judgment,” Sokolich said.

The mayor raised the
issue of public safety being compromised. A letter by his emergency
services coordinator, Paul Favia, on September 10 obtained by CNN cited a
“new traffic pattern” around the bridge's toll plaza that was backing
up traffic in Fort Lee.

“This new traffic
pattern is causing unnecessary delays for emergency services to arrive
on scene for medical emergencies,” Favia said, citing one case in which
paramedics rushing to aid an unconscious elderly woman suffering a heart
attack were held up and had to meet the ambulance transporting the
victim at the hospital instead of at the scene. She later died.

The situation could deepen Christie's political woes, said David Gergen, a CNN senior political analyst.

“If a woman died here,” he said, “he's in deep, deep trouble.”

Analysts: Bridge firestorm could have bigger impact on Christie

Even if he had nothing
to do with the traffic snarls, the allegations could have serious
consequences for Christie, analysts said.

“There's something about
this that's so petty and so vindictive, and it feeds into this
narrative that he's a bully. … He's going to have to find some way to
defuse this to prove he doesn't run a shop like that,” said Gergen, a
former adviser to several U.S. presidents.

It's a defining moment
for Christie, said John King, CNN's chief national correspondent. And
how he deals with the situation in the next two days — from whether he
fires anyone to what he says — will be key.

“If he handles it
decisively and then he sits down and calmly answers questions and
doesn't berate the reporters who ask them, then he has a chance to be a
leader who dealt with a crisis and he moves on,” King said. “But if that
perception starts to stick in, that's not a presidential temperament.
And that's bad for him nationally in his perspective. It's bad for him
as he starts his new term in New Jersey. And it's bad for him with the
audience he needs to care about most politically long-term at the
moment, and that's the Republican base that he wants to make him their

Does this mean Christie's presidential ambitions are dashed?

“Not necessarily,” Oxford University historian Timothy Stanley wrote in an opinion piece for
“He's a resourceful politician and it's still many months before
campaigning starts in earnest. But now, his opponents have a stick to
beat him with. Best of all, it's an anti-government stick. If
Republicans stand for anything right now, it's opposing the ability of
government to mess with the individual's life — and here we have a
classic example of politicians taking revenge on each other at the
expense of the average citizen.”

Political commentators
from both sides of the aisle immediately recognized the potential for
credibility questions, particularly around Christie's explanations in
recent months about the traffic jams in Fort Lee and previous comments
rejecting suggestions of political mischief.

“He's already cemented a
narrative as something of a bully,” said S.E. Cupp, a Republican
political strategist and CNN “Crossfire” host. “If this was happening in
his administration, I don't think it would be shocking.”

But, she said, if it
“turns out he's lying about what he knew or whether he ordered it —
that's going to be the worst, the most damaging; because his
authenticity is his calling card.”

It's important to ask how much Christie knew, Gergen said, but the reality might be more complicated.

“Sometimes the boss does
not order something,” Gergen said, describing the Nixon White House
during the Watergate scandal. “I don't know whether Nixon ordered
Watergate, but I can guarantee you that people who carried out Watergate
thought that's what he would have wanted. There's an environment in
which you find yourself sometimes on staff when things don't have to be
said. You sort of know.”

Democrats swarm

Christie is now
campaigning for fellow GOP governors as chairman of the Republican
Governors Association and is seen as a prime political target for
national Democrats.

They rarely attacked him
during his re-election campaign but are now becoming more aggressive
with the bridge controversy unfolding.

“These revelations are
troubling for any public official, but they also indicate what we've
come to expect from Governor Christie — when people oppose him, he
exacts retribution. When people question him, he belittles and snidely
jokes. And when anyone dares to look into his administration, he bullies
and attacks,” U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the
Democratic National Committee chairwoman, said in a prepared statement.

A source close to Christie said “there will probably be some sacrificial firing, and that'll be it.”


CNN's John Crawley, Jake Tapper, Paul
Steinhauser, Alan Silverleib, Stephanie Kotuby and Dana Davidsen
contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

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