UPDATE: Political appointee loyal to Chris Christie pleads guilty in George Washington Bridge case.
NEWARK, N.J. — A former loyalist to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie admitted in federal court on Friday that he played a role in causing traffic jams near the George Washington Bridge.
David Wildstein told a judge he intended to plead guilty in the case that has loomed over Christie’s political ambitions for more than a year.
Wildstein was an official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey at the time of the tie-ups in September 2013.
Christie declined to comment Friday as he left a hotel in McLean, Virginia, after speaking at a breakfast before Wildstein appeared in court.
Federal prosecutors also scheduled an early afternoon news conference on the case. The office, which Christie led before stepping down in 2008 to run for governor, didn’t release any other details on the investigation in advance of the hearing.
Two of the three access lanes to the bridge in Fort Lee were shut down for four mornings in September 2013, causing massive delays.
The simmering scandal erupted a year ago when an email from Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, to Wildstein, a port authority official and Christie loyalist, was revealed. It read, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Wildstein’s reply was, “Got it.”
By the time that email was made public, Wildstein had resigned, as had Bill Baroni, Christie’s top appointee to the authority. The governor fired Kelly and cut ties with Bill Stepien, his two-time campaign manager, amid the scandal.
Questions over whether the lanes were closed for political retribution have been dogging Christie for more than a year. Christie has been gearing up for a 2016 presidential campaign but has not announced he is running.
Asked about the impending action during a press conference Wednesday, Christie brushed off the potential impact.
“I don’t think that has anything much to do with me,” he said, adding that the ongoing developments wouldn’t influence his decision timeline or his campaign if he chooses to run.
Christie has long maintained that he knew nothing about the closures until he was confronted with media reports, and said he doesn’t expect the facts to change from what he said during a marathon press conference last January.
“I know what the truth is, so I’m not the least bit concerned about it,” he said.
Christie has launched a political action committee that allows him to pay for travel and a staff, but he has not formally declared himself a candidate for president.
Patrick Foye, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the powerful agency that runs the bridge — one of the busiest in the world — ordered lanes reopened on what would have been the fifth morning of closures.
Lawmakers began holding hearings on the closures and Christie laughed off suggestions that his administration had anything to do with them after the mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, suggested that the lanes were blocked to get revenge against him, perhaps because he did not endorse Christie’s re-election.
A law firm his office hired — and the state paid for — produced a report clearing Christie and his remaining staff of any wrongdoing. Democrats derided the report as a whitewash.
In December, a special legislative committee looking into the matter released its interim report. It did not link Christie to the lane closures, but said that Christie aides acted with “perceived impunity.” The report noted, though, that several of the people it considered key witnesses either invoked their rights not to incriminate themselves and refused to answer questions or were put off-limits by federal criminal investigators.
Christie and his supporters have denounced the legislative effort as politically motivated.
Several members of Christie’s staff testified before the lawmakers. They have not shared any bombshells that have offered proof that there was a broader plot to close the lanes or to cover up what happened. Some lawmakers have seized on the fact that one staffer, Jennifer Egea, said she sent Christie a text message about earlier testimony before the committee but later deleted it. The lawmakers’ report said there was a volley of texts between the aide and Christie. They said that Christie’s failure to supply them indicates that he must have deleted them, too.
The scandal also raised questions about how Christie’s administration handled the rough and tumble world of New Jersey politics.