N.J. Gov. Christie Faces Traffic Jam Scandal

fromWNYC

Uncovered emails and text messages link Gov. Chris Christie's administration to a scandal involving the closing of lanes leading to the country's most traveled bridge. It snarled traffic for days. The emails add evidence to claims from state Democrats that the closure was political retribution for a mayor who did not endorse Christie for re-election.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

A controversy over a traffic jam is turning into a full-blown political scandal for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Emails and text messages released yesterday seem to show that one of his top aides initiated the closing of two key lanes onto the heavily trafficked George Washington Bridge into New York City; also that other aides were in the loop on the plan. Those closures caused traffic mayhem for four days in September, with cars, buses and ambulances snarled for hours. The emails add fuel to allegation that the lane closures were retribution, politically motivated.

Matt Katz covers Governor Christie for WNYC and he joins us now. And Matt, give us the back-story. First of all, why would Christie or his deputies be involved in closing highway lanes onto a freeway in the first place?

MATT KATZ, BYLINE: Right. Well, Christie appointees are in charge of this agency that runs the George Washington Bridge, which is the busiest bridge in the world. And they said they ordered the lanes as part of this traffic study. But once other appointees from the agency started to come forward, it was clear that not only didn't anybody else know about this traffic study - including local officials, local police, the media - but no traffic study seems to even have existed.

And that's when Democrats got suspicious, thinking the local mayor of the town of Fort Lee, where the bridge sits, may have been punished for the traffic jam because he refused to endorse Christie's reelection.

MONTAGNE: And we learned yesterday a lot from these emails. They're very intriguing. Give us an example of just one or two.

KATZ: Sure. You know, you see Christie's campaign manager calling the mayor an idiot. You see a top Christie aide saying: Let's get that traffic jam started in Fort Lee. You see them saying: Oh, it doesn't matter about the traffic, that there are folks stuck in traffic jam, they're just children of Democratic voters; really like dismissing the fact that people were in four hours of traffic.

MONTAGNE: Four hours like sitting there on each of those days just to get onto the George Washington Bridge. Yeah. So questions about who closed the lanes and why that might have happened have dogged Christie for several months now. And over that time, he's responded in different ways to these allegations. Right?

KATZ: Right. In the beginning, when I first asked him about this more than a month ago, he laughed it off and gave a sarcastic answer at a press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: I work the cones, actually, on that. Unbeknownst to everybody, I was actually the guy out there. I was in overalls and a hat.

KATZ: Then a couple of weeks later, when the controversy continued to swirl and a second Christie appointee was forced to resign, he was more contrite.

CHRISTIE: Mistakes were made. And when mistakes are made, people have to be held accountable for them.

KATZ: Then yesterday he cancelled a public appearance. He was held up in private. And at the end of the day he released a statement that basically blamed a staffer or staffers who lied to him. He said: I am outraged and deeply saddened by this; it was completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct. And he said he knew nothing about it.

Now, remember, he had told us that all of his senior staff and campaign staff had nothing to do with this and had told him they had nothing to do with this. So yesterday's emails really flew in the face of that.

MONTAGNE: Well, we just should also remind listeners here that Chris Christie himself is not implicated directly at all, in any of these emails. None of them seem to go to him or come from him. But he is a national political figure. He's widely thought to be seeking the 2016 Republican nomination for president. This is the sort of scandal, do you think, that could sort of stick to him?

KATZ: Potentially. Christie has always framed himself as a straight shooter who roots out corruption. And now there's question about both of these claims. Political opponents could post a TV ad with pictures of him yelling at teachers and videos of him yelling at reporters, which is images we already have. And you couple it with this story of him allegedly seeking revenge on political enemies, and it makes him seem - it gives a caricature of this sort of New Jersey Tony Soprano type who operates in the politics gutter. And that could be a problem if he runs for the presidency in 2016.

MONTAGNE: Matt Katz covers Governor Christie for member station WNYC. Thanks very much for joining us.

KATZ: Thank you.

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