(Adds statement by lawyer for ex-Christie aide, paragraphs 9-10)
By Daniel Kelley
TRENTON, N.J., March 28 (Reuters) - Governor Chris Christie on Friday said the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey had resigned, a day after an internal investigation cleared Christie in the “Bridgegate” scandal engulfing the potential 2016 Republican presidential contender.
David Samson, 74, a lawyer and ally of the governor at the agency that oversees bridges and tunnels connecting the two states, had been discussing for a year his desire to step down, Christie told a news conference.
“David tendered his resignation to me this afternoon, effective immediately,” Christie said in his first news conference since a two-hour-long question and answer session on Jan. 9 after a scandal erupted over the purportedly politically motivated closure of traffic lanes on the George Washington Bridge between New York City and Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Christie spoke to reporters a day after a law firm hired by his office released a report finding him faultless in the massive traffic jam last September, which was apparently orchestrated by his senior staff possibly as political payback.
Critics of Christie quickly dismissed the report as a whitewash. State lawmakers and federal prosecutors are separately investigating the lane closures.
Christie defended the report, which blamed former deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly and Port Authority official David Wildstein for closing bridge entrance lanes in an apparent bid to retaliate against the Democratic mayor of the town of Fort Lee who had not endorsed Christie’s 2013 re-election campaign. Christie fired Kelly and Wildstein resigned from his job.
On Friday, Christie repeated the assertion he has made since the scandal broke that he was unaware of his aides’ apparent political motives in orchestrating the lane closures.
“Nobody dropped the ball here,” Christie said. “If I knew then what I know today, we would have done a lot of things differently.”
Kelly’s lawyer issued a statement on Friday saying the internal review as a “preemptive strike to isolate Ms. Kelly and impugn her credibility is not surprising.”
The lawyer, Michael Critchley, added, “The report’s venomous, gratuitous, and innappropiate sexist remarks concerning Ms. Kelly have no place in what is alleged to be a professional and independent report.”
Christie, meanwhile, suggested the report would have little influence on whether or not he would seek the Republican nomination to run for president.
“There is significantly less interest around the country about this report than in this region, and appropriately so,” Christie told reporters.
And in a sign that he was trying to move past the scandal and use it for at least some political gain, Christie called for reform at the Port Authority, which is beset by rivalries between political appointees from New York and New Jersey.
In a statement, Samson said he had been discussing retirement plans for “months” with Christie.
“The timing is now right, and I am confident that the Governor will put new leadership in place to address the many challenges ahead,” Samson said.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Attorney’s office in New Jersey issued a subpoena for Port Authority documents related to Samson and how he voted on two bridge contracts worth nearly $3 billion, a source told Reuters.
The probe will focus on a possible conflict of interest when two construction companies with ties to Samson’s private law firm, Wolff & Samson, were awarded the government contracts.
The governor defended his decision to go two months without taking questions from the media.
“I‘m not afraid to answer questions from you. But the fact is, if I know what you’re going to ask and I don’t know the answer to it, there is no reason to submit myself to you.”
Called a bully by critics, Christie was far more combative on Friday than he was at his contrite appearance in January. He did say, however, that the scandal had damaged his self-confidence.
“There’s no question that this shakes your confidence and if it doesn’t shake your confidence, you’re arrogant,” Christie said.
Thomson Reuters: Reuters Insider reut.rs/1jfWMT5 (Additional reporting by Scott Malone in Boston, David Jones in Newark, New Jersey and Hilary Russ in New York; Editing by Grant McCool)