TRENTON, N.J. — Gov. Chris Christie's long-time confidant resigned Friday as chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, following months of withering scrutiny about potential conflicts of interest stirred up in the George Washington Bridge lane-closure controversy.
The New Jersey governor, in his first news conference in 11 weeks, said David Samson, 74, first broached the idea of leaving the port authority about a year ago but agreed to stay on through the gubernatorial election and then through a staff shakeup. The governor said Samson had no role in the lane closures and sought no retribution when they were ended but that Samson thought new leadership would be "the best way to start a new era at the port authority."
The press conference came a day after an internal investigation declared the Republican governor had no involvement in the politically motivated traffic jams last year. The governor's office had requested the investigation.
Christie said he hadn't made himself available to the press because he knew he would get questions on the bridge controversy he couldn't answer until the report from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher law firm was completed. He said he's "done a lot of soul-searching on this in the last 10 or 11 weeks" and intends to make clear what types of conduct are acceptable or unacceptable for his staff.
"There's no question that this shakes your confidence. And if it doesn't shake your confidence, then you're arrogant," Christie said. "Some people that I trusted and relied upon let me down. And as a result, we let down the people of the state of New Jersey. Of course that shakes your confidence. But in the end, what it's resolved me to do is get better."
Samson's resignation proved to be the big development from Christie's more than hourlong meeting with reporters.
Federal prosecutors in New Jersey are looking at whether Samson, a Christie appointee, helped steer $2.8 billion in construction contracts to companies his law firm represented as well as Samson's role in the traffic jams that snarled Fort Lee, N.J., in the first full week of September.
"I have every faith and trust and confidence in David's integrity, as do people on both sides of the aisle in this state over the course of the last 40 years that he's been involved on and off in public life," Christie said.
In December, when Christie announced Port Authority deputy executive director Bill Baroni would be replaced by Deborah Gramiccioni, he said he didn't feel it was necessary to replace Samson — and he said Friday he still doesn't think it was necessary.
"My intention was to not turn the whole place over at one time," Christie said. In the short term, one of the five other New Jersey commissioners on the port authority board will be elevated to chairman.
Democrats leading the New Jersey Legislature's investigative committee said Samson's resignation raises questions, particularly because he wasn't interviewed for the internal report released Thursday.
Democrats have called that report a "whitewash" because three officials at the center of the bridge scandal were not interviewed. They are Bridget Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff who wrote the infamous e-mail saying, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee"; Bill Stepien, the governor's campaign manager; and David Wildstein, a Christie appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
All three of those officials are no longer in their government jobs.
"The committee will not allow this one-sided review to color the ongoing investigation as we expect it was intended. Any credible examination of the lane closures should be focused on uncovering the facts, not exonerating the governor or anyone else," said a statement from state Sen. Loretta Weinberg and Assemblyman John Wisniewski, part of a panel probing the lane closings.
Lawyer Randy Mastro said the review he conducted is a vindication of the governor, who has maintained since December that he did not know of the scheme to cause traffic jams on the busy bridge to exact revenge on a Democratic mayor who declined to endorse Christie's re-election bid. On Friday, Christie continued to say that a Wall Street Journal article in October first told him about the problem and that he had thought the traffic tie-ups came from a legitimate traffic study.
"One of my closest aides participated in this, and for that she was fired," Christie said of Kelly in a lively give-and-take with reporters at the state capitol in which he condemned some questions and refused to answer others. "I think that anybody who worked for me and thought that something like this would be acceptable and pleasing to me didn't know me well in the first place."
He said he ultimately was responsible for Kelly's hiring and had approved Wildstein's hiring though he now appeared to regret it.
"I honestly think that having David Wildstein on the port authority was a mistake," Christie said. "Let's just leave it at that."
Wildstein is suspected of being a key player in the lane closures.
"The problem is that everybody — you, me — is looking through the retrospectroscope," Christie said in one comeback. "Things always look different then."
Two independent investigations continue: one from a New Jersey legislative panel and another from the U.S. attorney's office. Christie said more than 50,000 pages of documents have been sent to the Legislature for its investigation.
Christie has largely avoided the press since Jan. 9 when he took questions for nearly two hours on the politically motivated lane closures. Since then, he has resumed town hall meetings with constituents and has traveled the country in his role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
The Republican governor's poll numbers have tanked since the scandal. A poll from The Des Moines Register earlier this month showed that more than half of the voters in Iowa, which has the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses, disapproved of the way Christie handled the controversy.
Christie called it a fool's errand to predict how these political troubles will effect the 2016 presidential race because he has not decided whether to be a candidate. Right now his job is to be governor, he said.
"In the long sweep of things, any voters, if they consider this issue at all in considering my candidacy — if there ever is one — I got a feeling it will be a very small element of it if any element at all," Christie said.
Contributing: Dustin Racioppi, Asbury Park (N.J.) Press; and Catalina Camia and Martha T. Moore, USA TODAY