Fires 2 aides tied to traf­fic jam scan­dal

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY SETH MCLAUGH­LIN

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Thurs­day he’s not a bully and de­nied know­ing about his aides’ de­ci­sion to ex­act retri­bu­tion on a Demo­cratic city mayor by cre­at­ing traf­fic prob­lems, say­ing he learned of the plan only a day ear­lier.

Seek­ing to stem the po­lit­i­cal blood­let­ting, Mr. Christie said he fired a deputy chief of staff and ousted a top ad­viser — though the Repub­li­can gov­er­nor said he bears ul­ti­mate re­spon­si­bil­ity for the scan­dal, which has tainted his im­age and may have tar­nished his pres­i­den­tial as­pi­ra­tions.

In a 108-minute press con­fer­ence, the tough-talk­ing 51-year-old apol­o­gized re­peat­edly but said the scan­dal shouldn’t add fuel to an emerg­ing sto­ry­line that he is a po­lit­i­cal bully who re­wards his friends and pun­ishes his en­e­mies.

“I am ex­traor­di­nar­ily dis­ap­pointed by this, but this is the ex­cep­tion, it is not the rule, of what’s hap­pened over the last four years in this ad­min­is­tra­tion,” Mr. Christie said. “I’ve worked with elected of­fi­cials on both sides of the aisle, ones that I agree with and ones that I dis­agree with. The po­lit­i­cal over­tones that were ex­hib­ited in those doc­u­ments re­leased yes­ter­day and the con­duct by those peo­ple is not ac­cept­able.”

“I am who I am, but I am not a bully,” he said.

Democrats said the gov­er­nor was try­ing to make him­self out to be the vic­tim, rather than tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for cul­ti­vat­ing an en­vi­ron­ment that al­lowed for retri­bu­tion.

“It’s clear that Chris Christie ab­so­lutely cre­ated and fos­tered a cul­ture in his of­fice where this type of con­duct was con­sid­ered ap­pro­pri­ate,” said Mo Ellei­thee, a Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee spokesman.

Emails ob­tained by the Ber­gen County Record and pub­lished on the pa­per’s web­site Wed­nes­day morn­ing seemed to in­di­cate that the gov­er­nor’s deputy chief of staff, Brid­get Anne Kelly, along with a for­mer cam­paign man­ager, Bill Stepien, and a cou­ple of Christie-backed ex­ec­u­tives at the Port Au­thor­ity of New York and New Jersey, or­ches­trated the midSeptem­ber lane clo­sures on the Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Bridge, which con­nects New Jersey and New York, clog­ging the streets of Fort Lee.

“Time for some traf­fic prob­lems in Fort Lee,” Ms. Kelly wrote to David Wild­stein, a Christie ally and ex­ec­u­tive at the Port Au­thor­ity, on Aug. 13 — about three weeks be­fore the lanes were closed. Mr. Wild­stein, who or­dered the clo­sures and re­signed last month, re­sponded, “Got it.”

Mr. Christie, who weeks ago de­nied that any­one in his in­ner cir­cle was in­volved, held a press con­fer­ence Thurs­day to say he had learned that was wrong. He said he fired Ms. Kelly and with­drew his nom­i­na­tion of Mr. Stepien to be chair­man of New Jersey’s Repub­li­can Party, and also can­celed any busi­ness Mr. Stepien had with the Repub­li­can Gover­nors As­so­ci­a­tion, which Mr. Christie now chairs.

Mr. Christie also trav­eled to Fort Lee to apol­o­gize per­son­ally to Mayor Mark Sokolich and the city’s res­i­dents. Af­ter­ward, Mr. Christie called the meet­ing “pro­duc­tive,” a term with which Mr. Sokolich agreed when asked about it on CNN. He also told the Ber­gen County Record that the meet­ing was a “big step” to­ward mend­ing fences be­tween the gov­er­nor and the city.

Still to be seen is the ef­fect of the scan­dal — and the gov­er­nor’s re­sponse — on his pres­i­den­tial hopes.

Mr. Christie has spent years cul­ti­vat­ing an im­age of bi­par­ti­san­ship, which helped him unseat a sit­ting gov­er­nor in 2009, and to win re-elec­tion over­whelm­ingly in Novem­ber. Mr. Christie’s crossover ap­peal has led some po­lit­i­cal ob­servers to say he rep­re­sents the big­gest threat to Democrats in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

But John Fee­hery, a GOP strate­gist, said Mr. Christie should be more con­cerned about how the bridge saga plays with Repub­li­can pri­mary vot­ers.

“For con­ser­va­tives, hav­ing a politi­cian us­ing gov­ern­ment to pun­ish peo­ple is in­fu­ri­at­ing,” Mr. Fee­hery said. “It is kind of like what Obama has been do­ing with the IRS. It is not like con­ser­va­tives trust him to be­gin with — and I like him, I want him to do well. But I am a re­al­ist.”

Kevin Mad­den, another Repub­li­can strate­gist who worked on Mitt Rom­ney’s 2012 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, said Mr. Christie could ben­e­fit from his de­ci­sive re­sponse in fir­ing peo­ple. Mr. Mad­den said that con­trasts well with the way that Pres­i­dent Obama re­acted to the trou­bled roll­out of Oba­macare last year.

“The most im­por­tant part wasn’t draw­ing dis­tance be­tween his staff, but hold­ing them ac­count­able,” Mr. Mad­den said. “Christie can draw a fa­vor­able con­trast with Pres­i­dent Obama in that sense. They spent half a bil­lion dol­lars on a web­site that wasn’t func­tional and not one per­son got fired.”

Some of Mr. Christie’s po­ten­tial ri­vals for the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion re­mained silent. Sen. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky laughed at re­porters when asked to com­ment on Mr. Christie’s woes. “Any­thing be­sides that,” Mr. Paul said, de­clin­ing to com­ment.

In New Jersey, state Democrats vowed to pur­sue their in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Mr. Wild­stein was called to tes­tify to a state leg­isla­tive in­quiry Thurs­day but re­fused to an­swer ques­tions, cit­ing his Fifth Amend­ment rights. As a re­sult, Mr. Wild­stein was held in con­tempt.

There was move­ment on two other le­gal fronts Thurs­day. Six New Jersey res­i­dents filed a fed­eral law­suit against the Port Au­thor­ity, the state of New Jersey and Mr. Christie. The law­suit calls the traf­fic jams “deliberate acts” that made them late for work and caused panic at­tacks. They also want the law­suit cer­ti­fied as a clas­s­ac­tion case, a move that, if the law­suit is suc­cess­ful, would let huge num­bers of other peo­ple col­lect dam­ages.

The pos­si­bil­ity of crim­i­nal charges also hangs over the case, and U.S. At­tor­ney Paul Fish­man, who leads New Jersey’s fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors team, said he is “re­view­ing the mat­ter to de­ter­mine whether a fed­eral law was im­pli­cated.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHOTOGRAPHS

David Wild­stein takes an oath dur­ing a hear­ing Thurs­day at the State­house in Tren­ton, N.J., but is re­fus­ing to an­swer ques­tions about a scan­dal in­volv­ing Gov. Chris Christie.

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