Last Updated Jan 8, 2014 8:06 PM EST
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he was "outraged" to learn Wednesday that a member of his staff appears to have instigated the closure of several access lanes on the George Washington Bridge in September as a punitive measure against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, and promised that people would be held responsible for the decision.
"What I've seen today for the first time is unacceptable. I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge," Christie said in a written statement released Wednesday afternoon.
"One thing is clear: this type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my Administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions," he said.
The news of involvement by Christie's administration came Wednesday morning when a New Jersey newspaper reported on private communications between his staff and political appointees at the Port Authority. The documents that were the basis for the report were later obtained by CBS News.
Christie’s administration has repeatedly stated that the lane closures were part of a traffic study initiated by the Port Authority, but messages uncovered by The Record reveal repeated references to Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, who did not endorse Christie for re-election (Christie ultimately won his election by a wide margin, receiving more than 50 percent of the vote even though Democrats outnumber Republicans in New Jersey).
About three weeks before the lane closures, Bridget Anne Kelly, one of Christie’s three senior deputies, wrote, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," in a message to David Wildstein, a top executive at the Port Authority who was appointed by Christie. "Got it," wrote Wildstein, who would later resign as a result of the controversy.
The lane closures – which were not announced in advance -- snarled traffic on the bridge, delaying commuters and school buses and slowing emergency vehicles, including one instance in which a 91-year-old woman lay unconscious waiting for paramedics and later died. One of the most damning conversations uncovered by The Record was an exchange on the second day of closures in which an unidentified person sent Wildstein a text message saying, "I feel badly about the kids," adding, "I guess." In reply, Wildstein wrote, "They are the children of Buono voters," a reference to Christie’s Democratic opponent, State Sen. Barbara Buono.
Christie has said he was unaware of the lane closures and said that they were “unequivocally not” motivated by politics in response to Democrats in the state who said they believed they were. In the early days of the controversy – which did not take hold until after the election – Christie joked about his role, saying sarcastically, "I worked the cones. Unbeknownst to anyone, I worked the cones."
The New York appointee at the Port Authority would ultimately order the lanes reopened, but not before Christie’s staffers ignored Sokolich’s calls to the Port Authority trying to ascertain a reason for the closures.
The Fort Lee mayor said he believed he was being punished for refusing to support Christie's re-election bid.
"Their job is to keep us safe and to make the right decisions and to make those decisions with venomous motivation is completely inexcusable to me it is completely inexcusable to me and I just think that it is a culture that has been established that I think people think they will never get caught and they can do what they want that is not the way it works," Sokolich said.
The messages were mostly sent through personal email accounts, and include or mention several Christie associates, including Bill Stepien, his campaign manager – who was named head of the New Jersey GOP Tuesday – and Michael Drewniak, his spokesman. Amid investigations by New Jersey legislators and the Port Authority’s inspector general, two Christie appointees, including Wildstein, resigned. But it wasn’t enough to stem the fallout: The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee announced in December it would launch its own investigation.
The emails were produced by Wildstein in response to a subpoena from a panel of New Jersey lawmakers. He is scheduled to testify under oath Thursday.
Not long after the emails were revealed, Christie’s office announced that an event in Ocean County scheduled for Wednesday had been “postponed until a later date.”