By Dave Warner
NEWARK (Reuters) – New Jersey legislators on Friday planned to release nearly 1,000 pages of documents that may shed new light on a probe of four days of traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge apparently orchestrated by Republican Governor Chris Christie’s top aides to settle a political score.
The release would come the day after Christie, a star of his party seen as a likely 2016 White House contender, fired the staffer who had sent e-mails calling for trouble at the key commuter choke point and repeatedly apologized in a two-hour news conference.
The scandal, which had been brewing for weeks, burst onto the national stage on Wednesday when New Jersey officials released e-mails that appeared to show Christie’s staff plotting the lane closures in September to retaliate against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, because he had not endorsed the governor’s re-election campaign.
Christie had counted on the decisive victory he won in November to show a degree of bipartisan appeal and boost his chances of winning his party’s nomination for president, political experts say.
During Thursday’s news conference, where Christie repeatedly apologized for his staff’s actions but also denied knowing of the move, he said he was not yet thinking about a possible 2016 bid.
Christie has no public appearances scheduled for Friday.
After his emphatic statements on Thursday that he had told voters all he knew about the incident, any further implications in Friday’s document release that the governor or his staff knew more about the incident than they acknowledged could cause the scandal to continue to dog Christie, observers said.
“He’s not fully in control of this story anymore,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history 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. But on Thursday he struck a more humble tone, saying: “I am not a bully.”
The U.S. attorney for New Jersey, Paul Fishman, whose job Christie held before being elected governor, has opened a probe 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.
Vilma Oleri, whose 91-year-old mother died after her ambulance got caught in the first day of the traffic jam, told CNN she did not believe the traffic delays were the cause.
“I really believe in my heart that she was already gone when the ambulance go there,” Oleri said.
At the heart of Wednesday’s revelations was an e-mail from Christie’s now-dismissed deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, who wrote to a Port Authority executive in August, saying: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
The executive, David Wildstein, replied: “Got it.”
Wildstein later admitted ordering the lane closures and resigned his post. He supplied the e-mails to the media in response to a subpoena issued by a panel of state lawmakers.
Appearing before the panel on Thursday, Wildstein declined to answer questions, repeatedly invoking the constitutional protection not to say anything that might incriminate him.
(Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Stephen Powell)