A political dirty-tricks investigation of Gov. Chris Christie's inner circle broke wide open Wednesday with the release of emails and text messages that suggest one of his top aides engineered traffic jams in a New Jersey town last September to punish its mayor.
An "outraged and deeply saddened" Christie responded by saying he was misled by his aide, and he denied involvement in the apparent act of political payback.
The messages were obtained by The Associated Press and other news organizations Wednesday amid a statehouse investigation into whether the lane closings that led to the tie-ups were retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie for re-election last fall.
"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly wrote in August in a message to David Wildstein, a top Christie appointee on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
"Got it," Wildstein replied. A few weeks later, Wildstein closed two of three lanes connecting Fort Lee to the heavily travelled George Washington Bridge, which runs between New Jersey and New York City.
The messages do not directly implicate Christie in the shutdown. But they appear to contradict his assertions that the closings were not punitive and that his staff was not involved.
Democrats seized on the material as more evidence that the potential Republican candidate for president in 2016 is a bully.
The messages "indicate what we've come to expect from Gov. Christie — when people oppose him, he exacts retribution. When people question him, he belittles and snidely jokes. And when anyone dares to look into his administration, he bullies and attacks," Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz said.
In a statement issued late Wednesday, Christie said: "I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge."
"People will be held responsible for their actions," he added, but gave no details.
Kelly had no immediate comment.
Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich called it "appalling" that the traffic jams appear to have been deliberately created.
"When it's man-made and when it was done with venom and when it was done intentionally, it is, in my mind, the prime example of political pettiness," he said. He said the gridlock put people in danger by holding up emergency vehicles, and he added that those responsible should resign.
While Sokolich is a Democrat, Christie sought bipartisan support during his re-election campaign to bolster his image as a pragmatic leader willing to work with his political opponents.
Democratic state Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who has been leading the investigation, said the material in the documents is "shocking" and "outrageous" and calls into question the honesty of the governor and his staff.
The tie-ups occurred between Sept. 9 and Sept. 13. Port Authority officials later said the closings were part of a traffic study. But no study has been produced.