By Edith Honan and Chris Francescani
NEW YORK, Jan 31 (Reuters) - The former New Jersey official at the center of a political scandal dogging Governor Chris Christie said on Friday the prominent Republican knew about a traffic jam orchestrated by his top aides during the blockage, the New York Times reported.
Christie, seen as a 2016 White House hopeful, has repeatedly denied any knowledge of a plan to snarl traffic at the busy George Washington Bridge as political retribution and severed ties with several top aides over their role in the incident.
David Wildstein, who resigned his post at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey late last year, said he had evidence that proves Christie had knowledge of the jams “during the period when the lanes were closed,” according to a letter sent to the authority’s lawyer and released to the newspaper.
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.
The closures last September caused four days of severe traffic jams for commuters and residents of Fort Lee, New Jersey, whose mayor declined to endorse Christie’s re-election campaign, and prompted official investigations into the role of the governor’s office.
The governor has seen his national support ratings fall as a result of the so-called “Bridgegate” scandal.
“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 key question, he 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.
Wildstein and Christie attended Livingston High School at the same time, but Christie, a former federal prosecutor, has denied knowing Wildstein well.
“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.
The Democratic National Committee, already targeting Christie as its greatest threat in the 2016 presidential election, was quick to pounce.
“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 a now-fired Christie aide calling for “traffic” in Fort Lee, on the New Jersey side of the bridge, show Christie’s popularity sliding in theoretical 2016 White House and primary matchups.
Christie, who won re-election in a landslide last November, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“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 always the old...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 dulled Christie’s image 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 across the storm-hit New Jersey coast 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 a 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.”