UPDATED 1/9//14 at 8:50 P.M.: Chris Christie on Thursday fired a top aide who apparently helped orchestrate massive traffic jams at the busy George Washington Bridge to settle a score, saying he had been blindsided in the scandal that threatened to tarnish his political image.
As Christie apologized publicly for the abrupt lane closings seemingly ordered by some of his staff, and which he said he did not know about beforehand, the office of the U.S. Attorney in New Jersey said it was launching an investigation.
Revelations that his staff may have had a hand in plotting the four-day lane closures at the George Washington Bridge in September, causing hours-long jams that stalled commuters, school buses and ambulances, come as Christie has emerged as a powerful figure in the Republican Party and a possible presidential contender.
The controversy erupted with the release on Wednesday of emails showing Christie's aide and allies appearing to plan lane closings in what critics said was a bid to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, at the New Jersey end of the bridge, because he had declined to endorse Christie's re-election effort.
"I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team," Christie said. "I am who I am, but I am not a bully."
As the head of the party's governors association and a possible 2016 White House contender, the tough-talking governor has sought to present himself as a leader who can work with opponents and forge bipartisan alliances.
Christie said at his news conference that he dismissed his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, who in the most damning of the emails, wrote to a Port Authority executive in August, saying: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."
The executive, David Wildstein, replied: "Got it."
Wildstein later admitted ordering the lane closures and resigned his post. He supplied the emails to the media in response to a subpoena issued by a panel of state lawmakers.
Appearing before the panel on Thursday, Wildstein declined to answer questions, repeatedly invoking the constitutional protection not to say anything that might incriminate him.
The state Assembly's transportation, public works and independent authorities committee, which is probing the closures, voted to hold him in contempt.
The charge will be referred to a county prosecutor for determination of what it could mean for Wildstein, an Assembly spokesman said.
U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, whose job Christie held before being elected governor, has opened a probe into the decision to close the bridge lanes, his spokeswoman said.
"Our office is reviewing it to determine whether a federal law was implicated," Rebekah Carmichael said in a statement.
A local newspaper reported emergency responders were delayed in attending to four medical situations - one involving an unconscious 91-year-old woman who later died of cardiac arrest and another, a car accident, in which four people were injured.
At the news conference, Christie referred to the lane closings as a "rogue political operation."
"I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here," Christie said. "This was handled in a callous and indifferent way, and this is not the way this administration has conducted itself over the last four years."