Under pressure from Democrats in the state, N.J. Gov. Chris Christie today accepted the resignation of his top staff appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey after a controversy over whether several local lanes were shut down on the busy George Washington Bridge for political reasons.
In the hastily arranged news conference this morning, Christie announced that Bill Baroni, the deputy executive director of the Port Authority, will be replaced by Deborah Gramiccioni, whom Christie called one of his "most trusted friends and advisers over the last 10 years."
Christie said that Baroni offered his resignation and he accepted, but he had planned to replace him with Gramiccioni all along.
"This was nothing that I hadn't planned already," Christie said. "He knew that I had planned to replace him a while back."
Christie explained that he accepted Baroni's resignation early, given "all the distraction that's going on."
Christie's announcement was a stunning capitulation for a pol who - as a rule - refuses to accept criticism. Political insiders view the George Washington Bridge scandal as a clear victory for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his political team over Christie's.
The flap is over the mysterious closure of several lanes on the world's busiest bridge for nearly a week in September, creating hours of standstill traffic that delayed commuters and parents during the first week of school. The bridge is jointly managed by New York and New Jersey.
Speculation has swirled that Christie ordered the abrupt closure as political retribution after the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., didn't endorse his re-election bid. Closing the lanes from Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge was a nightmare for local officials and commuters.
One other Christie official has already resigned because of the controversy. David Wildstein, the Port Authority's director of interstate capital projects, said the issue had become "a distraction" as he resigned last week.
And the New Jersey office of the inspector general launched an investigation into the incident Tuesday.
Christie had initially answered the questions swirling about the conduct of his appointees by dismissing them.
"I worked the cones. Unbeknownst to anyone, I was working the cones," Christie joked during a Statehouse news conference, according to the Star Ledger.
But the controversy has only widened.
The governor today said that the political controversy is "created and manufactured."
"I don't have any recollection of having ever met the mayor of Fort Lee," Christie told reporters today. "I may have. He was not somebody that was on my radar screen in any way".
Asked whether the closure had any political motivations, Christie said, "The answer is absolutely unequivocally not."
New Jersey Democrats had called for more resignations, including Baroni's, and have widened their probe of the incident in the state legislature.
Baroni is a longtime Christie loyalist and was one of the first people Christie appointed when the governor first took office in 2010. Baroni was a popular member of the state Legislature and a prominent Republican during a period of malaise for New Jersey's GOP. He is also one of the party's top election lawyers in New Jersey.
The New Jersey appointees contend the lane closures were simply the result of an ill-advised decision to conduct a traffic study on the New Jersey side of the bridge. The New York officials testified that no such study exists.
Christie defended Baroni, saying that he acknowledged in his previous testimony to state legislators that mistakes were made.
"People will make mistakes," Christie said. "Senator Baroni owned up to the mistakes."
Few people in New Jersey government are closer to Christie than Gramiccioni. She has served in key positions both in the governor's office and the Attorney General's Office. She came to Trenton after serving for Christie in the state's U.S. Attorney's Office, which Christie ran before announcing his campaign for governor.
Gramiccioni's husband, Christopher, is also close to the governor; Christopher Gramiccioni was named by Christie to be the county prosecutor in Republican stronghold Monmouth County.
The Democratic National Committee has sought to make this a national issue for Chrisite, asking whether the closures were "Christie's political payback" in a Web video released this week.
It comes after Christie won re-election by a wide margin and has taken the helm of the Republican Governors Association, which many view as a platform for his presidential ambitions in 2016.