Gov. Chris Christie apologized Thursday for politically motivated lane closures on the George Washington Bridge that gridlocked a small town, as he announced he fired a top aide and severed ties with his campaign chief for their roles in the scandal.
"I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team," Christie said, adding that he is "sick over this."
There is "no doubt in my mind the conduct exhibited is completely unacceptable and showed a lack of respect for the appropriate role of government and the people we are trusted to serve," Christie said.
Christie said he fired Bridget Anne Kelly, his deputy chief of staff, and asked Bill Stepien, manager of his successful re-election campaign, to withdraw his name as leader of the state Republican Party and leave a new job at the Republican Governors Association, which Christie heads. Both had sent e-mails, revealed Wednesday, about the lane closures. Two Christie appointees to the agency that oversees the bridge resigned in December.
Christie, sounding subdued and chastened at times, answered questions for nearly two hours about the scandal - an issue he had once joked about by saying he himself had placed the traffic cones. He insisted Thursday he did not know at the time about the actions of his aides and appointees.
"I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution," Christie said. "I am stunned by the abject stupidity shown here, regardless of what the facts ultimately uncover. This was handled in a callous and indifferent way."
He said it was "obvious" that Kelly had lied to him when he asked staff to disclose whether they had any knowledge of the traffic jams that occurred last fall.
Christie said he would go to Fort Lee, N.J., the town at the New Jersey end of the George Washington Bridge, to apologize to the mayor and residents for the traffic jams that engulfed them for four days in September.
The scandal tarnishes Christie as he raises his national profile as leader of the governors association and possibly prepares for a 2016 bid for the GOP presidential nomination. He has consistently been at the top of early presidential polls of potential candidates, and he parlayed his image as a tough-talking politician to easily win a second term as governor. At the news conference, Christie dismissed any discussion of his presidential ambitions.
Christie's comments came amid news reports the U.S. attorney will launch an investigation into the matter. U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said in a statement that he is "review the matter to determine whether a federal law was implicated." A state investigation is already underway.
News organizations obtained copies of the communications between Kelly, then Christie's deputy chief of staff and David Wildstein, a Christie appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, that indicated they schemed to cause delays on the heavily traveled bridge. Messages from Stepien were also in the e-mails released.
Before Christie's news conference, state Sen. Ray Lesniak, D-N.J., called for a federal investigation by the U.S. attorney's office. U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., had already asked the federal Transportation Department to look into the matter.
The. U.S. attorney's office has launched an investigation.
"There's certainly reasonable suspicion that criminal acts have been involved here," Lesniak, a Democrat, said on CNN's New Day. "Not only abuse of governmental power for political purposes, but we have reckless endangerment of people's lives and possibly criminally negligent homicide."
Wildstein, who resigned in December from the port authority, declined to answer questions before a state Assembly transportation committee and invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. He was the recipient of a message in August from Kelly, who wrote,"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."
"Got it," Wildstein replied. Weeks later, he closed two of the three lanes connecting Fort Lee to the bridge.
Pleas from Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich went unheeded as the traffic jams continued. Sokolich, a Democrat, did not endorse Christie for re-election, during a campaign in which the governor stressed his ability to work across the aisle with political rivals. Christie sought and obtained endorsements from dozens of Democratic elected officials.
The bridge delays reportedly slowed emergency workers trying to respond to calls, according to The Record. The Hackensack, N.J., newspaper reported one of those calls involved an unconscious 91-year-old woman, who later died.
At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney said he has not spoken with President Obama about the scandal and said he doubts the president would have a reaction. Obama and Christie have worked together on aid to New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy.
"It sounds very much like a state matter to me," Carney said.
Mo Elleithee, communications director for the Democratic National Committee, denounced Christie's explanations.
"The fireable offense should not be that his team lied to him - it's that they took actions that hurt the people of New Jersey," Elleithee said. "And it's clear that Chris Christie absolutely created and fostered a culture in his office where this type of conduct was considered appropriate. Today's spectacle by the governor has left many questions still unanswered."