Officials demand answers on traffic as key player pleads the Fifth

Vehicles slow at a toll booth at the George Washington Bridge on December 17, 2013.
Vehicles slow at a toll booth at the George Washington Bridge on December 17, 2013.

Federal and state officials are lining up to demand answers from the New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, his office, and Port Authority officials.

Just as Christie apologizes and declares himself "blindsided" by the revelations that his staff had callously planned the traffic jams in Fort Lee as political retribution, the planned inquiries, investigations, and questions mounted.

The U.S. Attorney for New Jersey—the very office Chris Christie ran before entering a bid for governor—would open an inquiry to see whether any federal laws were broken.

"The Port Authority Office of Inspector General has referred the matter to us, and our office is reviewing it to determine whether a federal law was implicated,” a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney Rebekah Carmichael said in an emailed statement.

RELATED: Christie apologizes: ‘I am embarrassed and humiliated’

The state legislators who have led the charge against the bridge scandal on Thursday afternoon will get their first stab at questioning senior staff members in the governor's office, as well as David Wildstein, the official who appears to have orchestrated the closures.

On Thursday morning, Wildstein's countersuit to squash the subpoena demanding his testimony this afternoon was denied by a judge.  Later, he appeared before the New Jersey Assembly's Transportation, Public Works, and Independent Authorities meeting, where legislators had planned a littany of questions, but Wildstein plead the Fifth Amendment, which guarantees Americans the right not to incriminate themselves by testifying.

“On advice of counsel, I assert my right to remain silent," he responded repeatedly, with Wildstein and his attorney just repeating "same answer" dozens of times. 

"I'm coming to the conclusion that I'm wasting my time asking these questions," committee chairman John Wisniewski, a Democrat, later said. The committee found Wildstein in contempt, which according to Wisniewski carries a misdemeanor offense and will be referred to law enforcement. 

It promises to be the first of many inquiries, as federal investigators—some prompted by state legislators—announce interest into the scandal.

“This crosses a line that is rarely crossed: People’s lives were in danger,” said Democratic state Sen. Ray Lesniak on CNN on Thursday. “Endangering people’s lives — that’s not politics. That’s why the U.S. attorneys have to get involved.”

West Virginia’s Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee that oversees the bridge, suggested an investigation in December and asked Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to begin looking into it.

"Unwarranted lane closures with no public notice can have serious ramifications on interstate commerce and safety in the region," Rockefeller said in a statement. "I continue to have serious concerns about the actions of this agency."

Later Thursday, Rockefeller told reporters it's unlikely he will hold hearings into the bridge plot, adding, "it sounds like the feds and others have that pretty well manned."

From Sept. 9 to 13, two lanes were closed on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge, causing massive traffic jams in the town of Fort Lee. Christie denied his and his staff’s involvement—even mocking the accusation and crediting —until a subpoena of records showed that his staff had indeed manufactured the incident. The George Washington Bridge is the most trafficked bridge in the world.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” a top aide Bridget Kelly wrote to a Port Authority official. Kelly was fired on Thursday.

In response, Christie also announced that he'd be meeting with senior staff members personally to question them on their involvement with the scandal. Christie also banished his former campaign manager Bill Stepien, asking him to remove his name from consideration for both state GOP chairman and as a consultant for the Republican Governors Association that Christie chairs.

Christie fought to get in front of the scandal in his two hour press conference Thursday, emphasizing that he “had no knowledge or involvement” of the bridge plot and said, “I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here."