New Jersey governor, enmeshed in scandal, to meet with press

NEW YORK Thu Jan 9, 2014 7:16pm IST

NEW YORK Jan 9 (Reuters) - New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a possible Republican White House contender enmeshed in a scandal over his staff's role in shutting down lanes onto the busy George Washington Bridge, will meet with reporters Thursday, his office said.

Christie's office said he would hold a news conference at his office in the state capital of Trenton at 11:00 a.m. EST (1600 GMT).

The controversy erupted with the public release of incriminating emails showing a top Christie aide played a key role in closing some lanes leading to the bridge in a ploy to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, who didn't endorse Christie for re-election. The George Washington Bridge connects Manhattan in New York City to Fort Lee.

The incident now threatens to tarnish Christie's image and national standing as he weighs a bid for the White House in 2016.

The blunt, tough-talking governor has enjoyed immense popularity at home, particularly after his handling of recovery and rebuilding efforts following Superstorm Sandy, and he was re-elected in a landslide in November.

Local tabloid newspapers jumped on the latest developments, with the New York Post running the headline "Chris in a jam" on its front page. New York's Daily News, taking a poke at Christie's heft as well as his political aspirations, wrote "Fat chance now, Chris."

After the emails were released to the media, Christie said in a written statement that he had been misled by his staff and knew nothing of the lane closings before they occurred.

He said he was "outraged" by the "completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct."

The abrupt lane closures, which lasted four days in September, caused hours-long traffic jams in the borough of Fort Lee, at the New Jersey end of the bridge that carries some 300,000 vehicles on a typical day. It is one of the world's busiest spans.

A local New Jersey paper reported that, as a result of the lane closures, emergency responders were delayed in attending to four medical situations. One involved an unconscious 91-year-old woman who later died of cardiac arrest and another, a car accident, in which four people were injured.

Christie has touted his ability to work with political opponents - most notably President Barack Obama after the devastating 2012 storm - as a mark of his skill at overcoming partisan divisions and forging alliances to get things done.

But he is known for engaging in shouting matches, hurling insults and belittling challengers, and news that his staff exacted retribution from a small-town mayor by causing headline-making traffic jams undermine his efforts to present himself as tough, but not a bully, experts said.

"These emails destroy all of that effort in a single day," Matthew Hale, an associate professor of political science at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, said on Wednesday.

In the most damning email, Christie aide Bridget Anne Kelly, wrote to a Port Authority executive in August, saying: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."

The executive, David Wildstein, replied: "Got it."

In another message sent amid the gridlock, an unidentified author wrote: "Is it wrong that I'm smiling," and Wildstein responded: "No."

The emails do not give a specific reason for the closings, which kicked off on the first day of school in Fort Lee. Among those trapped for hours in traffic were children on school buses.

The emails were supplied to the media by Wildstein, the Port Authority executive, in response to a subpoena issued by a panel of state lawmakers.

A long-time Christie ally, Wildstein admitted ordering the lane closures and resigned in December. He was due to testify before the panel on Thursday. (Editing by Paul Thomasch; Editing by Bernadette Baum)