The US attorney for New Jersey announced on Thursday an investigation into lane closures last year near the George Washington Bridge, with the assistance of the FBI. Meanwhile, Governor Chris Christie has fired his deputy chief of staff over the incident.
The office of US Attorney Paul J. Fishman confirmed on Thursday that an inquiry into last September’s lane closures in Fort Lee, New Jersey would seek to determine whether any federal laws were broken. By Thursday evening agents with the FBI's public corruption unit were also reported to be assisting the US attorney in that review.
The Bergen Record newspaper published on Wednesday this week emails indicating that high-placed figures within the Christie administration ordered those closures after Ft. Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich declined to endorse the incumbent governor during last year’s election. Traffic on and around the world’s busiest bridge was brought to a standstill as a result of those manufactured traffic jams, and authorities now say one person may have died because emergency personnel couldn’t reach her in time due to the delays.
"The Port Authority Office of Inspector General has referred the matter to us, and our office is reviewing it to determine whether a federal law was implicated," Rebekah Carmichael, a spokesperson for Mr. Fishman’s office, told Reuters.
The Port Authority controls the George Washington Bridge, which connects Ft. Lee to Manhattan. Around 102 million vehicles cross the bridge annually, but delays from September 9 through 12 crippled traffic and hindered emergency services. EMS coordinator Paul Favia told The Record that gridlock doubled response time in at least two instances, including one in which it took responders seven minutes to reach an unconscious 91-year-old woman who died shortly thereafter.
Speaking Thursday for the first time since the Bergen Record released their report one day earlier, Gov. Christie called that incident “awful” and said he was “embarrassed and humiliated” by this week’s revelations
Christie told reporters that he had no knowledge of the planning or plotting involving those closures, and has so far taken disciplinary action against two employees tied to the scandal. Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly was fired from her role in the administration, Christie said, and former campaign manager Bill Stepien was told to withdraw his name as a candidate for chairman of the state's Republican Party.
The emails published by the Record attributed Kelly with writing to a Port Authority official, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the conduct that they exhibited is completely unacceptable and showed a lack of respect for the appropriate role of government and for the people that were trusted to serve,” Christie said Thursday morning.
“There’s no justification for that behavior. There’s no justification for ever lying to a governor or a person in authority in this government,” he said.
“But I don’t want any of you to confuse what I’m saying this morning,” the governor added. “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 that I believe is necessary in order to remediate them.”
Christie later traveled to Ft. Lee to apologize to residents there in person, and held a half-hour meeting with Mayor Sokolich, which the Governor called "productive."
Meanwhile, a class action lawsuit was filed Thursday in the US District Court of New Jersey against government officials connected to the bridge closing. Among the defendants mentioned in the complaint include Gov. Christie, former aide Kelly, former Port Authority officials Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, the State of New Jersey and the Port Authority.
The complaint was filed by attorney Rosemarie Arnold initially on behalf of six New Jersey residents. The class action suit, though, can garner more plaintiffs. The suit, according to the filing, “includes any and all individuals and business owners” who were inconvenienced or damaged by the restricted lanes between Sept. 9 and Sept. 13, Politico reported.
A New Jersey State Assembly committee probing the bridge allegations will release Friday 907 pages of documents it has gathered on the matter, a committee spokesman said Thursday. The documents were collected following the subpoena of Wildstein and are expected to be posted online Friday morning.