By Edith Honan and Chris Francescani
NEW YORK Jan 31 A former New Jersey official on
Friday claimed Governor Chris Christie knew about politically
motivated traffic jams as they happened, re-igniting a political
scandal that has taken a toll on the prominent Republican.
The letter from a former official at the agency that
oversees the busiest U.S. bridge sparked a quick response from
Christie, who again denied wrongdoing, and prompted a top New
Jersey newspaper to suggest the governor could face impeachment.
David Wildstein, who resigned his Port Authority post late
last year, said in a letter that he had proof of the
"inaccuracy" of some of Christie's statements about the
so-called "Bridgegate" scandal, which polls show has already
started to weigh on Christie's potential 2016 White House bid.
Since the scandal first came to light, Christie has denied
knowing the cause of the George Washington Bridge lane closings,
which occurred after the mayor of Fort Lee declined to endorse
the governor in a re-election bid and caused four days of
massive traffic jams in that city.
"It's the first time a high-level official has contradicted
the governor," said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University
history professor who specializes in presidential politics.
The letter does not indicate that Christie orchestrated the
closures in any way, does not specify exactly when he became
aware of the jams, and offers no evidence to back up the claim.
"Mr. Wildstein contests the accuracy of various statements
that the governor made about him and he can prove the inaccuracy
of some," the letter said.
Wildstein and Christie attended Livingston High School at
the same time, but Christie, a former federal prosecutor, has
denied knowing Wildstein well.
One key question is exactly when and how Christie learned of
the closures, said Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat.
"There aren't enough facts. I'm not rooting for him to know
or not to know. I will tell you, I remain very, very concerned
about it," Sokolich told CNN. "If it was known at the very tail
end, possibly, I'm not sure what this letter means at all."
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who has led the investigation
into the lane closures, told CNN late Friday that "these are
serious allegations, because what Mr. Zegas's letter is saying
is - you shouldn't believe the governor."
"But we need to see the documents to see whether there's any
merit to that claim, to not believe the governor."
The key question, Zelizer said, is whether Wildstein can
produce "smoking gun" evidence proving Christie's knowledge of
the events. State Democrats probing the scandal are likely to
jump on that vulnerability, Zelizer added.
The Newark Star-Ledger, one of New Jersey's largest
newspapers, which endorsed Christie in his 2013 re-election bid,
posted an editorial after the New York Times first reported
about the letter, saying that if the accusations are true, the
governor must resign or be impeached.
"Because it will show that everything he said at his famous
two-hour press conference was a lie," the editorial said.
The paper had not endorsed Christie's initial run in 2009.
The Democratic National Committee, already targeting
Christie, who won re-election in a landslide last November, as
its greatest threat in the 2016 presidential election, was quick
"He's repeatedly said that he had no knowledge of the lane
closures," said Mo Elleithee, a DNC spokesman. "Today's
revelations raise serious questions about whether that is true."
Polls taken since the emails emerged early this month
showing Christie's now-fired deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne
Kelly, calling for "traffic" in Fort Lee, show Christie's
popularity slipping in theoretical 2016 White House and primary
"If we assume it's true, then we're in the realm of an
outright lie on the part of the governor, and that changes the
entire story," said David Redlawsk, a New Jersey pollster. "It's
the cover-up that gets you."
As for Wildstein, Redlawsk said, "It very much sounds like
the message is quite clear to the U.S. Attorney's Office: Tell
us what you need, and we'll cooperate."
The scandal has tarnished Christie's reputation as a
politician ready to reach across the aisle at a time when
partisan gridlock has defined Washington.
Christie bolstered his image as conciliator in 2012 when he
walked beside President Barack Obama along the storm-hit New
Jersey coastline after Superstorm Sandy, in the final months of
the 2012 presidential campaign - a move that some supporters of
Republican contender Mitt Romney said hurt their party's chances
of retaking the White House.
In the marathon Jan. 9 press conference, Christie repeatedly
apologized for actions he blamed on his aides, expressed his
shock and said: "I am who I am, but I am not a bully."