New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, thought to be a top contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, apologised Thursday after reports emerged that a top aide closed parts of a major interstate bridge to punish a local Democrat mayor.
The resulting traffic jam on one of the world's busiest bridges, the George Washington Bridge linking New Jersey and New York City, caused hours-long backups for commuters and others as children started the school year.
Emails and text messages obtained by news organisations on Wednesday indicated that the closure of two traffic lanes may have been done to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, for not endorsing Christie for re-election last fall.
Christie said he was he was "embarrassed and humiliated" by the messages and said the aide in question had been fired.
"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Christie's deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, wrote in an August message to David Wildstein of the Port Authority, which is in charge of the bridge.
"Got it," Wildstein replied. A few weeks later, Wildstein closed two of the three lanes connecting Fort Lee to the bridge.
Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, said the gridlock put people in danger by holding up emergency vehicles and said that those responsible should resign.
The US attorney in New Jersey announced Thursday he is investigating the shutdown "to determine whether a federal law was implicated".
The scandal is being called the biggest test of Christie's political career so far.
Christie is viewed as a blunt, outspoken pragmatist who is willing to work with Democrats to get things done, which many see as a welcome contrast to the bitterly divided Congress in Washington.
After the emails and texts were reported Christie cancelled his Wednesday public appearances and hours later issued a statement saying he was "outraged and deeply saddened" by the revelations.
He said he was misled by Kelly and denied direct involvement.
"We fell short of expectations," Christie said in his apology Thursday, adding that he was "stunned by the abject stupidity" his aides exhibited.
Christie denied prior knowledge of the incident but said he shared responsibility and would go to Fort Lee to apologise.
"I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or execution," he said.
The revelations raise new questions about Christie's reputation as a bully and could bring an end to a political winning streak that saw him tipped as a possible 2016 presidential nominee as he sailed into a key second term as governor. His inauguration is scheduled to take place in less than two weeks.
Democrats at the national level swiftly circulated news of the scandal and even some conservative Republicans, angered by past Christie comments and his reputation as a moderate, have joined in the criticism.
Republican strategist Hogan Gidley told AP that the scandal might be a first sign of Christie's political troubles to come.
"I don't necessarily think it's Christie's policy that's going to ultimately catapult or sink his [presidential] campaign; I think it's his personality," Gidley said.
(FRANCE 24 with AP)
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Original headline: USA - Christie apologises in wake of 'Bridgegate' scandal
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