TRENTON, New Jersey (Reuters) - In the latest twist in a scandal engulfing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, documents related to the closure of the George Washington Bridge showed on Friday that authorities were deeply divided about the shutdown, with one warning it was illegal.
More than 1,000 pages of documents subpoenaed by New Jersey lawmakers investigating the massive, four-day traffic jam in Fort Lee were made public after days of damaging disclosures about the role Christie’s staff played in the September shutdown, which appeared to be political payback.
Christie, a star of his party seen as a likely contender for the White House in 2016, on Thursday went to Fort Lee to apologize for the fiasco and said he knew nothing about it until damaging emails from his staff were revealed on Wednesday.
Christie cut ties with a senior adviser and fired his then deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly, who wrote to Port Authority executive David Wildstein in August: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Wildstein, a Christie appointee, replied: “Got it.”
The documents, many subpoenaed from Wildstein, cast new light on the turmoil within the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency overseeing the nation’s busiest bridge.
On the fourth day of the shutdown, Patrick Foye, executive director of the Port Authority, lashed out in an email to executives, including Port Authority Chairman David Samson, and ordered the lanes reopened.
“I believe this hasty and ill-advised decision violates Federal Law and the laws of both states,” Foye said in the email.
“I pray that no life has been lost or trip of a hospital- or hospice-bound patient delayed,” said Foye of the traffic jam that delayed ambulances, including one called for a 91-year-old woman who later died.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat who chairs the Transportation Committee, said the documents raise more questions than they answer about whether Christie knew about the traffic tie-up.
“Included in these documents is a reference to what appears to be a meeting between Port Authority Chairman David Samson and the governor one week before Bridget Kelly issued the order to cause ‘traffic problems’ in Fort Lee,” Wisniewski said in a statement.
“By submitting these documents, Mr. Wildstein is telling us they are related to the lane closures in some way. The question that demands answering is - how?”
Christie said he was “blindsided” by the revelation that Kelly called for trouble at the commuter choke point apparently to retaliate against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee because he had not endorsed Christie’s re-election campaign.
Christie had counted on his victory in November to show bipartisan appeal to increase his chances of winning his party’s nomination for president, political experts have said.
Any implication in the documents released on Friday that Christie or his staff knew more about the plot than they have acknowledged could cause the scandal to dog Christie.
“He’s not fully in control of this story anymore,” said Julian Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University. “Because he took such a firm stand yesterday and was emphatic that this was it, any information that shows otherwise will continue the story and force him to put more time on it.”
Christie has long cultivated an image as a brash, tough-talking leader willing to buck his party for the good of his constituents. On Thursday, however, he took a more humble tone, saying: “I am not a bully.”
U.S. attorney for New Jersey Paul Fishman, whose job Christie held before being elected governor, has opened an investigation into the decision to close the bridge lanes.
The governor also faces a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court on Thursday by Rosemarie Arnold, a lawyer charging that area residents suffered financially from being trapped in traffic.
Wildstein has admitted to ordering the lane closures and resigned his post. Appearing before the panel on Thursday, Wildstein declined to answer questions, repeatedly invoking the constitutional protection not to say anything that might incriminate him.
Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Scott Malone; and Barbara Goldberg; editing by Gunna Dickson