DENVILLE, N.J. - Gov. Christie has reimbursed the state for two helicopter rides that he took to his son's baseball games, but in addressing the controversy head-on Thursday, he said the rides were justified, appropriate, and legal.
"I don't use it to joyride around New Jersey," Christie said of the new $12.5 million state police helicopter. "I use it when I absolutely need to do it, when my schedule puts so many demands on me there's no other way."
For the first time since the story - and pictures - of Christie's arrival from the sky surfaced Tuesday, he held a news conference before more than two dozen journalists. He answered questions for a half-hour, calmly and sometimes humorously, and never apologized.
He described the stresses of a working parent who wanted to see his son, Andrew, start as a catcher in a playoff game after he had begun the season on the bench.
"I was dealing with the realities of my life," Christie said.
In a sign of how quickly this story buzzed through the national and social media this week, CNN carried part of the news conference live.
"It's not a good-enough excuse to say, 'I'm governor, you've got to understand,' " he said. "I also understand this is a really fun media story for you, I get it, and you like to write about these things. The fact is I've got a lot of work to do."
Christie's office released a log of the 33 days the governor has used the helicopter since he came to office in 2010, including for a second baseball game last week. That trip had not been reported before.
The remaining 31 were work-related, he said, with trips to town-hall meetings, former U.S. Rep. John Adler's funeral, a call-in radio-show broadcast, a dinner with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and a luncheon for the New York Jets.
Christie began the news conference at St. Clare's Hospital in Denville, Morris County, by signing a bill mandating heart screenings for newborns and joking about how impressed he was that so many reporters were interested in the new law.
He then detailed his demanding schedule, particularly on Tuesday. He had wanted to watch the televised hearing of Anne Patterson, whom he had nominated to the state Supreme Court more than a year earlier. That hearing began after 2 p.m.
Then, he said, he wanted to see what might have been the last playoff game for his son, a junior at the private Delbarton School in Morristown. (Reporters noted that he could have watched the Patterson hearing online from the road, but he said he didn't get good Internet connection in his gubernatorial SUV.)
And finally, he wanted to keep an engagement he had with Republican fund-raisers from Iowa, who had flown in to meet with him at the governor's mansion in Princeton to ask him to run for president. (He said no to 2012; they didn't ask about 2016.)
After all that, Christie said, his son told him: "Dad, thanks for coming."
By then, the controversy had taken off, with even some conservatives questioning the governor's judgment, and Democratic legislators demanding investigations, hearings, and reimbursements.
He provided only the reimbursements. By Wednesday night, Christie had decided to end the distraction and write a check to the state for $2,151.50 for the trips to Tuesday's game and one last Friday. The Republican State Committee will pay $1,232 to cover the final leg on Tuesday, which took the Christies to meet with the Iowans.
The reimbursement did not silence some critics. Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D., Gloucester), who has proposed a package of bills to eliminate perks in government, said that although the governor's check was a "victory for the taxpayers of New Jersey," there was no excuse for what he did.
"I was a mayor 24/7; I am an assemblyman 24/7," Moriarty said. "I either miss my daughter's games or I get there on my own. That's what you signed up for."
Christie did not rule out using the helicopter for similar purposes in the future and did not say whether he would again reimburse the state.
"Where do I get in line for the free helicopter rides?" Moriarty asked. "There are thousands of moms, dads, and their kids in my district who have never had a helicopter ride, and it now costs nothing because the state is now giving them away for free."
Christie insisted the ride really didn't cost extra money. State police officials said Wednesday that the helicopters were flown every day anyway on medical and homeland-security missions and that pilots needed to log hours in the air to maintain certifications.
Christie said that was why his spokespeople initially said there would be no reimbursements.
Ultimately, Christie realized that the photographs of him getting out of the chopper and reports of him taking a black vehicle with tinted windows the final few yards to the field reflected poorly on the cost-cutting fiscal conservative.
"Perception matters," the Republican governor said. "So if by writing this check today people feel better . . . great, that's fine by me. But I don't want them to be confused by the fact that this cost them anything additional, because it didn't."
As for the car that was waiting for him at the field, Christie said it was there in case the helicopter had to be used for an emergency.
"It's because if the helicopter has to leave, I'm not calling a cab," he said. "That's not the way my life works anymore."
Christie used a cheat sheet at the news conference, saying he had the "most judicious use of the helicopter" of any recent governor, citing 277 trips for Gov. James E. McGreevey in his first year in office, and 2,300 for Gov. Jim Florio for his full term.
Andrew Christie's next baseball game is Friday afternoon in Sussex County.
Said the governor: "I don't think I'll be choosing to take the helicopter."
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