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'Bridgegate' emails rattle Republican rising star Christie

© Photo: AFP

Text by Sophie PILGRIM , in New York

Latest update : 2014-01-09

New Jersey's outspoken governor Chris Christie is often touted as the Republicans' most likely bet for presidential contender in the 2016 elections.

But an incriminating email exchange between some of Christie's top associates has triggered a political furore the New Jersey governor, despite his enormous popularity, will have difficulty shaking off.

In a scandal being called “Bridgegate” by the American press, two of Christie's top staff members are accused of causing mass disruption to a town run by a Democratic mayor, possibly because he declined – unlike other Democratic officials in the state – to endorse the Republican governor for re-election this year.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” an email from Christie's deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, read on August 13. The message was addressed to David Wildstein, the head of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls the busy George Washington Bridge running between Fort Lee and Manhattan.

“Got it,” he replied.

Less than a month later, authorities closed two out of three lanes connecting Fort Lee with the bridge for several days (ostensibly for a traffic study), causing massive delays. The George Washington Bridge is one of the world's busiest, carrying some 300,000 vehicles per day, and is of crucial importance to the 35,000 residents of Fort Lee.

The closures began on the first day of the school year, making it impossible for thousands of children to get to class on time. Seemingly referring to the unfortunate timing, one official wrote: “I feel badly about the kids. I guess."

"They are the children of Buono supporters,” Wildstein replied, referring to Christie's Democratic contender, Barbara Buono, whom he defeated in the November election when he won by a landslide.

“Is it wrong that I'm smiling?” another (unidentified author) writes. “No,” replied Wildstein.

Only when the questionable lane closures caught the attention of the media – it appeared that local police and officials were as baffled by them as the public – did the authorities in neighbouring New York state step in and order them reopened.

'Difficult to believe'

Wednesday's revelations will make it difficult for Christie, who had previously claimed that neither he nor his aides were involved, to maintain his case.

Mark Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee and purported target of the stunt, said on Wednesday that he was finding Christie's claims “more and more difficult to understand” as further evidence emerged.

"As things begin to unravel with emails, the actions of counterparts, resignations, engagement of defense council, that position becomes [...], quite frankly, more and more difficult to believe," he said.

"I'm actually rooting that the highest elected official in the state of New Jersey isn't involved in this, but I will tell you I'm beginning to question my judgment," he added.

During the gridlock, Sokolich contacted the Port Authority's deputy executive, Bill Baroni, to express his dismay at the continued disruption. “Help, please, it's maddening,” he said.

He received no reply.

'Misled by staff'

In December, both Wildstein and Baroni – another appointee and ally of Christie – resigned, but Christie implied that their departures were not directly linked to the scandal.

On Wednesday he seemed to pull a sudden U-turn when he denounced his staff members for “misleading” him over the closures.

“What I've seen today for the first time is unacceptable,” Christie said in an online statement. “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.”

The 21 pages of emails and text messages were obtained by the Bergen Record, the Wall Street Journal and other media through a subpoena made to Wildstein through the New Jersey State Assembly.

In the New Jersey state capital of Trenton, Deputy Assembly Speaker John Wisniewski, a Democrat, said the emails showed "government at its worst”.

"Among other things, they call into serious question the honesty of this governor and his staff. As a result of what has been revealed today, this governor has a lot of explaining to do," Wisniewski told Reuters.

Date created : 2014-01-09

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