Christie hires a former federal prosecutor to conduct an internal review as investigations get underway.
The Port Authority, which operates the bridge at the heart of a New Jersey scandal, says a key appointee of Gov. Chris Christie directed the controversial closing of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge and did not seek prior approval for any traffic study.
The agency statement came in response to an inquiry from Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who said there is "zero evidence" that any legitimate traffic study was being carried out at the time the access lanes were closed.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's statement, released Thursday, comes as two New Jersey committees were preparing to subpoena key Christie aides in their investigation of whether his top advisers orchestrated or covered up lane closures near the George Washington Bridge for political purposes.
The agency told the senator that it "shares your concern regarding the aberrational events" at the bridge that are "not in any way representative of the manner in which business is conducted at the Port Authority."
Rockefeller is chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which may open its own investigation.
"The Port Authority's response provides zero evidence that the purpose of these closures was to conduct a legitimate traffic study," Rockefeller said in his own statement.
As the bridge scandal unfolded in December, aides to Christie attempted to explain the abrupt closure of two access lanes to the bridge in Fort Lee, N.J., as part of a traffic study.
David Wildstein and Bill Baroni, who were appointed to the Port Authority by Christie, have resigned in the wake of the scandal.
The Port Authority told Rockefeller that the lane changes "were directed by Mr. Wildstein."
"No formal approval process to conduct a traffic study ... was sought prior to the toll lane closures," the agency said.
It also said that Wildstein, who was described as the No. 2 person among officials representing New Jersey, told the bridge's manager not to notify officials in Fort Lee about the upcoming closure.
"Mr. Wildstein made it clear that he would control the communication about the toll lane closures," the authority said.
The agency said its transportation planning staff "raised concerns about added congestion and delays" on local roads and that the facility management "raised the concern of not advising Fort Lee as a negative impact to a longstanding productive working relationship that had been established between facility operations staff and the borough."
It also noted that Baroni apparently did not seek approval from the Port Authority before testifying to a legislative committee about the alleged traffic study, nor was his testimony reviewed or approved in advance.
As recently as last week, when Christie fired deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly for allegedly lying to him about the incident, he continued to hold out the prospects that a study might have been involved, at least in part.
Rockefeller had asked the Port Authority a series of questions in December following testimony before a New Jersey legislative committee looking into the lane closings.
The agency responded by letter Wednesday, the deadline set by Rockefeller for a reply.
"The letter explains the careful planning and communication that should happen before interstate bridge lanes are closed for a traffic study or any other non-emergency purpose," the senator said.
He said in a statement that the Port Authority officials who ordered the four-day closures beginning Sept. 9 "did not follow their agency's own procedures."
In its letter to Rockefeller, the Port Authority said that such lane closures are never carried out unannounced.
"Any traffic study that would require lane closures would require advanced communications to other transportation operators, local municipalities, and the traveling public," the agency said..
The unannounced lane closures created huge traffic jams in Fort Lee, which is located at the western base of the bridge, and raised speculation that it was retribution against the town's Democratic mayor for declining to endorse Christie for re-election in November.
As a sign of increasing pressure, Christie announced Thursday that he has hired an outside law firm, including a former federal prosecutor, to head up an internal review of the case and to deal with the legislative inquiries and a probe by the U.S. attorney's office, the Asbury Park Press reports.
Christie said in a statement that hiring a law firm "will bring an outside, third-party perspective to the situation."
A member of the law firm, Randy Mastro, is a former assistant U.S. attorney in the southern district of New York who specialized in organized crime and racketeering cases.
In yet another development, Christie's former campaign manager, Bill Stepien, has hired an attorney, The (Bergen) Record reports.
The special committee created by the New Jersey Assembly has appointed its own former federal prosecutor, Reid Schar, to serve as special counsel. Schar successfully prosecuted former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who is serving a 14-year sentence for corruption.
"I am confident these talented legislators have the backgrounds, temperaments and experience to conduct this inquiry in a bipartisan, professional and responsible manner," newly sworn-in Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, a Democrat, said after appointing the special committee.
Among those who could receive subpoenas are Port Authority Chairman David Samson, a Christie adviser; Christie aide Regina Egea, who is slated to become Christie's new chief of staff; and Michael Drewniak, the governor's chief spokesman.
The Senate committee that is running its own investigation will also subpoena documents and witnesses.
"I'm not going to rule anybody out," said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, who will chair the investigative committee in the upper house. "There are many other questions here."
Christie, who said he had no prior knowledge of the lane closures, said last week that he would cooperate "with all appropriate inquiries to ensure this breach of trust does not happen again."
The role of Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff, emerged in e-mails subpoenaed by a New Jersey transportation committee and released last week.
In one e-mail exchange between Kelly and Wildstein about two weeks before the lane closures, Kelly wrote: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."
To which Wildstein replied: "Got it."
Christie, in announcing Kelly's dismissal, said he did not quiz her about why she sent the directive, saying he did not want to be accused of interfering with a witness in the case.