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Christie tries to move past bridge scandal

By Tom Cohen, CNN
updated 6:15 PM EST, Tue January 14, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Gov. Christie pledges cooperation with all inquiries into ongoing scandal
  • New Jersey's State of the State address takes on national interest
  • Christie briefly mentions controversy over alleged political retribution
  • Federal auditors are investigating the use of Superstorm Sandy relief funds

(CNN) -- For a governor described as a "my way or the highway" kind of guy, Chris Christie sounded mighty conciliatory on Tuesday in trying to move his administration and his 2016 presidential ambitions past a swirling controversy over alleged political retribution.

The New Jersey Republican repeatedly emphasized bipartisan efforts and working together in a State of the State address that took on special prominence because of investigations into whether his staff orchestrated traffic gridlock near the country's busiest bridge to punish a Democratic mayor for refusing to endorse his re-election last year.

With the national spotlight on an annual speech normally given little attention outside the state, Christie sought to reframe the political focus away from the George Washington Bridge controversy by citing the successes of his first term and calling for cooperation from the Democratic-led state Assembly and Senate.

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First came the bad, with Christie addressing the scandal in his first sentences by accepting ultimate responsibility even though he said last week he knew nothing about it.

"Mistakes were clearly made, and as a result, we let down the people we are entrusted to serve," Christie told state legislators gathered in Trenton for the speech intended to outline policy plans for the state.

His administration will cooperate "with all appropriate inquiries" into the controversy to "ensure this breach of trust does not happen again," Christie said before shifting away from the issue by saying the scandal "does not define us or our state" and will not delay "the work that needs to be done to improve the people's lives in New Jersey."

Instead, Christie emphasized economic successes of his first term and called for cooperation from the Democratic-led state Assembly and Senate.

In a span of 10 paragraphs, he used the word "we" 17 times in describing specific achievements such as job creation and economic growth.

Outlining a conservative agenda of no additional taxes and more law enforcement, the recently re-elected governor also proposed education reforms and programs to help drug offenders rejoin society.

The most emotional moment came well into the nearly hour-long address when Christie told the story of Craig Hanlon, a former drug addict from his hometown now working as a practicing attorney. Hanlon, who was seated near the front, stood up and hugged the governor to a lengthy ovation.

By tradition, legislators stood and applauded when Christie arrived, and he received repeated ovations when citing accomplishments of his first term and outlining new proposals.

However, the bridge controversy remains prominent for the early frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

Last week, the New Jersey State Assembly committee investigating the matter made public more than 2,000 pages of documents suggesting politics was behind the unannounced lane closures on the New Jersey side of the bridge last September that caused traffic gridlock in Fort Lee.

The documents suggest that top Christie aides orchestrated the traffic mess to punish that town's mayor for not endorsing their boss, and that they allegedly tried to stonewall media inquiries into the matter.

N.J. Dem on bridge scandal: I think laws were broken

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is embroiled in unfolding controversies over alleged political payback. The primary scandal involves suggestions key aides and supporters orchestrated traffic gridlock around the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee last year to punish that town's mayor for not endorsing Christie's reelection. A separate controversy involves a federal watchdog's review of whether Christie improperly used Superstorm Sandy funds to produce tourism ads starring him and his family. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is embroiled in unfolding controversies over alleged political payback. The primary scandal involves suggestions key aides and supporters orchestrated traffic gridlock around the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee last year to punish that town's mayor for not endorsing Christie's reelection. A separate controversy involves a federal watchdog's review of whether Christie improperly used Superstorm Sandy funds to produce tourism ads starring him and his family.
Who's who in Christie bridge scandal
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Aides and appointees of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have been accused of closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, pictured, for not endorsing Christie for re-election. If true, this wouldn't be the first time an American politician was targeted with dirty tricks -- the practice goes back as far as running for office. Click through to see other examples of less-than-ethical campaign tactics. Aides and appointees of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have been accused of closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, pictured, for not endorsing Christie for re-election. If true, this wouldn't be the first time an American politician was targeted with dirty tricks -- the practice goes back as far as running for office. Click through to see other examples of less-than-ethical campaign tactics.
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Christie fired one top adviser for her apparent role in the scandal and other key advisers have left their jobs. He has repeatedly apologized for being "blindsided" by what his aides and appointees were doing.

After Christie's reference to the controversy in Tuesday's speech, a top Democrat in the New Jersey legislature who heads an investigating panel rejected the governor's insistence he knew nothing about the lane closures.

"I find that a little hard to believe," Assemblyman John Wisniewski told CNN.

Wisniewski described relations between New Jersey Democrats and Christie as "very difficult," saying the governor "set lines in the sand" and "said it's my way or the highway."

"Bipartisan means both sides give. That's not how this governor operates," Wisniewski said.

Meanwhile, the assembly's GOP leader said he believed that Christie knew nothing about what happened.

"If a governor lies about what he knows, that's troublesome. That didn't happen here," Jon Bramnick said.

Federal officials also are looking at whether Christie improperly used Superstorm Sandy relief funds to produce tourism ads promoting the Jersey shore's recovery that starred him and his family.

In the new inquiry, federal auditors will examine New Jersey's use of $25 million of the funds for the marketing campaign, New Jersey Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone told CNN.

In a statement on Monday, Christie's office said the "Stronger than the Storm" campaign was part of an "action plan" approved by the Obama administration and developed with the goal of showing that the New Jersey shore was open for business just several months after the storm that devastated parts of the mid Atlantic in October 2012.

A separate statement Tuesday by the federal Housing and Urban Development agency described the probe as a routine audit "and not an investigation of the procurement process."

While political observers say the bridge scandal isn't good for Christie, the Sandy investigation has the potential to be much more damaging to his national image since it was his signature achievement following the storm.

Feds investigate Christie's use of Sandy relief funds

On Tuesday, Christie did not specifically mention that audit by the HUD inspector general, a watchdog over federal spending.

In what might have been an ironic reference to Sandy funding, Christie praised the cooperative spirit in the state that helped its recovery from the storm, seeming to describe his own challenges now.

"Let that spirit of Sandy be a powerful lesson to all of us, that when times are most difficult, cooperation and progress are possible," Christie said. "Indeed, I tell you, they're necessary."

CNN's Ed Payne, Jake Tapper, Chris Frates and Scott Bronstein contributed to this report

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