TRENTON - Gov. Christie announced the resignation Friday of one of his top appointees amid an escalating investigation into whether Christie loyalists deliberately created traffic jams at a bridge into New York City in an act of political retribution. The governor denied that the lane closings were politically motivated.
The resignation of Port Authority of New York and New Jersey deputy executive director Bill Baroni comes a day after a state lawmaker issued seven subpoenas to Baroni and other agency officials, and the Democratic National Committee tried to link the controversy to Christie, a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate.
Christie, who is shuffling some staff positions as he begins his second term, painted Baroni's departure from a plum appointment as an expected move, though he also acknowledged that the questions about a bridge delay cause a distraction.
"Sen. Baroni offered his resignation, and I accepted it, but this wasn't something I hadn't planned already," the governor said.
Baroni is a former Republican state senator who was state chairman of John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign and has been Christie's top deputy at the bistate agency for four years.
The new deputy executive director, Deborah Gramiccioni, has a long history of working with Christie, both in the U.S. Attorney's Office and in his administration. She also worked in the Justice Department in Washington.
The issue involves the George Washington Bridge, one of the world's most heavily traveled spans. The town on the New Jersey side of the bridge is Fort Lee, whose Democratic mayor did not endorse Christie in his reelection campaign last month. While Christie is a Republican, his campaign focused heavily on bipartisan support to bolster his image as a pragmatic executive who will work with his political opponents.
On Sept. 9, two of the three local-access lanes from Fort Lee to the bridge's upper level were closed without warning. Officials at the Port Authority, the powerful agency that operates the bridge, said the closures were for a traffic pattern study. Christie said Friday that he believes that version of events, though he said Baroni and others did not communicate the plan properly. Christie also said that he does not believe anyone on his own staff was involved in the lane closures and that he did not know about them until later.
Fort Lee officials said they were not informed of the closures in advance. The closures led to gridlock in Fort Lee and were canceled after four days.
Finishing a first term that by New Jersey standards has been scandal-free, Christie previously spoke about the issue in public only once. That time, he laughed it off.
During a news conference this month, he joked that he personally put up traffic cones to close the lanes. Then he addressed his critics, including two Democratic lawmakers who have been pressing the issue. "Just because John Wisniewski and Loretta Weinberg are obsessed with this," he said, "it just shows you they really have nothing to do."
He also denied a report in the Wall Street Journal that he called New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, this week to complain that one of Cuomo's appointees at the Port Authority was pushing too hard for answers about the bridge incident.
On Friday, Christie accused Democrats of making too much out of the bridge issue and exploiting "all the other politics swirling around it."
Democratic lawmakers have kept pushing the story by calling Port Authority officials to testify.
Port Authority executive director Patrick Foye, a Cuomo appointee, told lawmakers under oath that he was unaware of any traffic study.
David Wildstein, the Port Authority's director of interstate capital projects and one of Christie's high school friends, sent a resignation letter last week saying he would leave the agency as of Jan. 1. He said in the letter that he planned to leave anyway in 2014 but was speeding up his resignation because the bridge issue had become "a distraction."
The resignations of Baroni and Wildstein are effective Friday, Christie said.
Baroni earned $290,000 a year as Christie's top deputy, while Wildstein, who was a political blogger under the pseudonym Wally Edge before joining the authority, made $150,000 annually.