Published On: Jan 10 2014 07:04:47 AM AKSTUpdated On: Mar 31 2014 01:11:21 PM AKDT
What started with days of traffic jams in an obscure New Jersey town has now become a major scandal for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie -- one of the most prominent U.S. politicians.
Here's how the closure of two lanes on a bridge over the Hudson River suddenly became the epicenter of American political news. And could mean bad news for Christie's potential White House bid.
In September, two months before Christie's re-election, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey closed two of the three lanes that lead to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, N.J.
The closures caused days of massive traffic jams in Fort Lee, where Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich had declined to endorse Christie.
They immediately sparked speculation that the closures were political retaliation against Sokolich, and led to the December resignations of Christie confidante David Wildstein -- who had said the closures were part of a traffic study -- and Bill Baroni, New Jersey's top Port Authority official.
On Jan. 8, it was revealed that a top Christie aide had emailed Wildstein before the closures, telling him, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."
In a lengthy news conference the following day (Jan. 9), Christie announced he had fired the author of that email, deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly, and said he was "embarrassed and humiliated" by the "abject stupidity" of the move.
Christie also visited Fort Lee that afternoon for a personal, "face-to-face" apology to Sokolich and the people of his town, which Sokolich called "gracious" and "conciliatory."
So what's the big deal? It's believed that a 91-year-old woman who suffered a heart attack died as a result of the traffic jams because her ambulance couldn't make it to the hospital on time.
And politically, several analysts say the scandal endangers any national ambitions Christie may have. "If a woman died here, he's in deep, deep trouble," said David Gergen, a CNN senior political analyst.
So now what? Investigations and some "soul searching" on the part of the governor, who claims he was "blindsided" by the emails.
David Wildstein, former director of interstate capital projects for the Port Authority, refused to testify before the New Jersey General Assembly's Transportation Committee regarding the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. And the U.S. attorney's office in Trenton says it's looking into whether any federal laws were broken.
Chris Christie's administration got outside legal help as a special state legislative committee decided to issue 20 subpoenas to launch its formal investigation of a the scandal. Among those subpoenaed is Bridget Anne Kelly, who allegedly sent incriminating emails in the days leading up to the George Washington Bridge lane closures.
On Jan. 18, things went from bad to worse for Christie when Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer accused his administration of threatening to withhold Superstorm Sandy aid unless she lent her support for a redevelopment project. Christie's lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, later denies this and calls the claims "false" and "illogical."
On Jan. 31, a lawyer for Wildstein says in a letter to the Port Authority that Christie knew about the lane closings while they were going on, and claims he has evidence to prove Christie made inaccurate statements during his Jan. 9 news conference. He does not elaborate on the evidence.
Attorney Randy Mastro who works for a law firm hired by Christie's office to complete an independent review of the scandal released his findings in a news conference on March 27. Mastro says the governor was not involved in a plot to create gridlock near a major bridge as part of a political retribution scheme and said senior staffers were responsible for orchestrating the massive traffic jam.