New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Wednesday that he was outraged after learning - he said for the first time - that his administration purposely caused a traffic jam that clogged streets in a town at the foot of a major bridge into New York City to punish a mayor who refused to endorse him for re-election.
Emails unearthed by NorthJersey.com contradicted Mr. Christie's claims that his administration had nothing to do with the unfolding George Washington Bridge scandal, and sent the tough-talking Republican into damage control.
"What I've seen today for the first time is unacceptable," he said in a late-afternoon statement after the scandal percolated for most of the day. "I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge."
Mr. Christie previously insisted that the traffic jams in Fort Lee and the surrounding New Jersey communities should be blamed on a mishandled traffic study.
The 51-year-old, though, acknowledged Wednesday that he had been duped and said those responsible would be held accountable.
"One thing is clear: This type of behavior is unacceptable, and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better," he said. "This behavior is not representative of me or my administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions."
Democrats in the state Legislature said the scandal means either Mr. Christie was lying or his administration was running out of control under his nose.
The scandal emerged two months after Mr. Christie won re-election in a landslide over Democrat Barbara Buono, giving him a springboard for an anticipated 2016 presidential run.
The emails and texts from Mr. Christie's inner circle could hurt those chances and feed into an emerging storyline that Mr. Christie is a political bully.
"This will be his first real 2016 test for Christie, and how he handles it could be a real indicator of whether he is ready to make a serious bid for the White House moving forward," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell. "Allegations of bare-knuckle politics may be par for the course in New Jersey, but it's not something that the American electorate can easily wrap its head around, particularly in this era of highly partisan, petty politics."
The bridge scandal has been bubbling for months - thanks in part to the idea that the Christie administration was seeking retribution against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not backing the governor for re-election.
NewJersey.com reported Wednesday that it had obtained a series of emails and text messages that linked Bridget Anne Kelly, one of Mr. Christie's three deputy chiefs of staff, and Christie-backed officials at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to the unexpected lane closures on the George Washington Bridge.
"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Mrs. Kelly wrote Aug. 13, about three weeks earlier, to David Wildstein, a Christie ally and executive at the Port Authority.
Mr. Wildstein, who ordered the closures and has since resigned, responded, "Got it."
Some of the lanes were closed Sept. 9, the first day of school. Local law enforcement and elected leaders in Fort Lee said they were not given a heads up about the closures, which clogged their streets for four days, including during the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
In another exchange, Mr. Sokolich sought help from Bill Baroni, Mr. Christie's top appointee at the Port Authority who also has since resigned, telling him that the traffic tie-up was preventing children from getting to school and "it's maddening."
Some unknown Christie aides and appointees apparently laughed off his plea for help.
"Is it wrong that I am smiling?" someone said.
"No," another responded.
"I feel badly about the kids."
To which another responded by calling them "the children of Buono voters."
Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich called the gridlock appalling and said it endangered people by slowing first responders. According to the Bergen County Record, at least four Fort Lee emergency medical teams were delayed that day. In one of the four cases, a 91-year-old woman died.
The chairman of the transportation committee in the New Jersey Legislature announced Wednesday that it has subpoenaed Mr. Wildstein to testify Thursday as to why the Port Authority reduced, without notice, the number of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee.
"Mr. Wildstein has repeatedly been painted as the fall guy in this controversy but based on the documents released today, clearly that isn't so," said State Assembly Deputy Speaker John S. Wisniewski, the Democrat leading the investigation. "Based on the governor's previous response regarding his knowledge of the lane closures, either he doesn't know what's going on in his front office or he is lying."
National Democrats gleefully watched the revelations about the man who some analysts have said is the best Republican hope to retake the White House.
"What is crystal clear is that the Governor's office ordered lane closures that were intended to make first responders experience delays, kids sit gridlocked on the first day of school, and commuters hit log jams, to punish the Democratic mayor who didn't endorse Chris Christie's re-election bid," said Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
The messages "indicate what we've come to expect from Gov. 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," she said.
John Currie, chairman of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, said the episode showed that Mr. Christie is more interested in political vindication than public safety.
"Gov. Christie owes us an explanation for why his core team appears to have such disdain for the public trust and how they could seriously abuse the power of the governor's office right under his nose," Mr. Currie said. "This time, I suggest that the governor try a new approach when answering questions: honesty."