New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie accepted the resignation of David Samson, the Chair of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and a long time political confidante.
Since the scandal first broke, five Christie appointees have lost their jobs. And Samson is now facing federal investigation for numerous potential conflicts of interest.
In his first press conference since Jan. 9, Christie said he accepted the resignation in the spirit of a "new start, new leadership." But Christie maintained that Samson initially expressed interest in resigning last summer, although Christie asked him to remain. At that time, Samson had been in the middle of sensitive — and politically crucial — negotiations concerning the takeover of the Atlantic City airport by the Port Authority.
Christie has stood by Samson since the scandal first broke, and through numerous reports of potential Samson conflicts of interest. Emails released by Port Authority officials David Wildstein and Bill Baroni showed that Samson was deeply involved with the operations of the bi-state authority, and in frequent communication with the staffers. But Christie staunchly defended his former Port Authority chair on Friday, saying "I have every faith and trust in David's integrity," adding "this is what happens when you ask individuals from the private sector to come forward and serve in unpaid positions."
Christie also responded for the first time to questions about an email that referred to Samson "helping to retaliate" against the Port Authority official who reopened the lanes, saying that Samson had "no idea" what that was about.
In a statement, Samson said: "Over the past months, I have shared with the governor my desire to conclude my service to the PANYNJ. The timing is now right, and I am confident that the governor will put new leadership in place to address the many challenges ahead."
Christie's first news conference in three months was held in response to the release of his own legal team's report on the bridgegate scandal
The 350-page report said the governor had no prior knowledge of the plot to close local traffic lanes at the George Washington Bridge. Instead, it placed responsibility for the scheme with Christie's Port Authority appointee David Wildstein. The report also said Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer's allegations that the Christie administration tied Sandy recovery money to the approval of a real-estate project were "demonstrably false."
Christie largely restated the report's claims — that the lane closure scheme had been entirely the brain child of his former deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Ann Kelly and David Wildstein, the former Director of Interstate Capital Projects at the Port Authority.
State Democrats have criticized the report as a "whitewash," but Christie took it as gospel at his Friday news conference, exulting in what his lawyers called "an exoneration" and trying to put the scandal behind him. Though Christie showed sparks of his previous combative self — denigrating a reporter for asking a question that was "beneath the job you hold," he also tried out a line that he'll likely return to many times in the coming month — that he'd been "sensitized" by the scandal.
"I take responsibility for hiring Kelly," Christie said, "and Wildstein, through Baroni. But I'm more sensitized now." Christie also maintained that the report's discussion of Kelly's sexual relationship with former campaign manager Bill Stepien had not been "sexist," as critics have charged.
Additionally, Christie is advocating for the breakup of the Port Authority "from under one roof to two," expressing his belief that a bi-state agency couldn't function effectively. He acknowledged, however, that the idea was only "24-hours old" and that he had yet to discuss it with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, with whom he jointly runs the $8 billion agency managing regional airports and bridges.
The proposal drew rapid criticism from transportation experts. "Breaking it up isn't going to solve the problem," said Robert "Buzz" Paaswell, a professor at City College of New York. "Breaking it up will cost more in the long run than duplication of efforts."