The former New Jersey Republican official at the center of a political retribution scandal dogging Governor Chris Christie said on Friday the governor knew about a traffic jam orchestrated by his top aides, the New York Times reported.
David Wildstein, who is Jewish, said he had evidence that proves Christie had knowledge of the lane closures “during the period when the lanes were closed,” according to a letter sent to the authority’s lawyer and released to the newspaper.
Christie, a leading Republican candidate for the White House in 2016, has repeatedly denied any knowledge of a plan to snarl traffic near the busy George Washington Bridge and severed ties with several top aides over their role in the incident.
The closures last September caused four days of severe traffic jams for residents of Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Wildstein, who once blogged about New Jersey politics under the name Wally Edge, resigned his post at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey late last year.
“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.
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 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 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 matchups.
“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.”