TRENTON, N.J. – Gov. Chris Christie said Friday that the chairman of the authority that controls the George Washington Bridge has resigned, and Christie vowed to reform the agency in the wake of the scandal over a politically-motivated traffic jam.
Attorney David Samson, a close ally of Christie and a fixture in New Jersey politics for decades, submitted his resignation effective immediately, Christie announced as he met reporters at the State House for the first time since the bridge scandal erupted onto the national stage in January.
Christie said that he didn’t ask for the resignation and remained confident that Samson wasn’t involved in the decision to shut down local access lanes to the bridge last September, creating a monumental traffic jam in Fort Lee.
News of the resignation came a day after the release of a report, completed by lawyers hired by Christie, that said the bridge scheme was hatched by two midlevel aides without Christie or anybody else in his office knowing about it. The report, written without interviews with the central players in the drama — they declined to cooperate — was immediately criticized as a whitewash by Democrats here, who are leading their own probe.
But Christie defended the review, saying he had confidence in its authors.
“These are six former federal prosecutors who I can guarantee you have worked hard to develop the reputations that they've earned over the course of their career and would not give away those reputations to do some type of slipshod job for me,” he said.
He said he remained in the dark about the reasons for the traffic shutdown, which the report blamed on political retaliation.
"I don't know if we'll ever know what the motive is,” Christie said. “It mystifies me on every level why this was done. And I hope someday to have an answer to why it was done. But I certainly don't have a crystal ball and I can't tell you if or when I'll ever know. But do I hope to? After all this, you bet I hope to. You bet I hope to."
Samson’s law firm has a huge profile in New Jersey government and development, and has drawn increasing scrutiny and suggestions of possible conflicts between his post at the Port Authority and his private interests. The mayor of Hoboken, Dawn Zimmer, said top officials in Christie’s administration leaned on her to support a project planned by one of the Samson firm’s clients; the internal report said there was no evidence to support that allegation.
Christie said that Samson, 74, wanted to resign a year ago and that he talked him into staying.
"I have complete confidence that he acquitted himself in a way that was appropriate and ethical," he said.
Christie said Samson told him he thought it was necessary for him to step down so that Christie could move quickly to reform the dysfunctional two-state agency, which for years has been known for mismanagement and as a haven for patronage jobs. Christie, who vetoed a reform measure passed by the state legislature in 2012, said he will consider splitting the authority.
The appearance was Christie’s first news conference in 76 days and was marked by his usual signs of irritation toward the media, which has hammered away at the governor since the scandal dubbed “Bridgegate” broke.
"I’d love to say I missed you, but I didn’t," he told reporters, with whom he has a famously antagonistic relationship.
"I don’t know whether you can’t take notes or you’re not listening," he said to one reporter, and ripped into another: "You have to get the facts right if you’re going to ask me a question."
Christie, who leaves for Las Vegas tomorrow to speak to the Republican Jewish Coalition, acknowledged that the scandal has hurt his standing in the polls in New Jersey and nationally, though he said it was too early for that to mean anything.
The traffic jam occurred as he was en route to a landslide reelection in November; since then the 2016 presidential campaign he had been expected to wage has seemed a more distant possibility.
Christie said the scandal had shaken his confidence, since he was responsible for hiring Bridget Anne Kelly, his former deputy chief of staff, and David Wildstein, the former port authority aide who engineered the traffic jam.
"Listen, there's no question that this shakes your confidence. And if it doesn't shake your confidence, then you're arrogant,” he said. “I mean, you know, some people that I had believed in and had confidence in let me down."
In an interview set to air later Friday on Fox News, Christie said of the aides who he and the report have blamed for the traffic mess that he had "made a mistake in judging their judgment and their character."
"I admit that mistake and I’m sorry that it happened," he said. "But I can’t, when I work with human beings, be held to a standard of perfection in them and in me. "
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