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We need the full truth from Chris Christie

By Sally Kohn
January 14, 2014 -- Updated 1225 GMT (2025 HKT)
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.
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Who's who in Christie bridge scandal
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Who's who in Christie bridge scandal
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sally Kohn says Chris Christie needs to go further in commenting on bridge scandal
  • She says he needs to explain why he didn't respond to the controversy for weeks
  • Kohn: Christie also under fire for handling of Sandy relief funds
  • She notes that Christie's ratings among New Jerseyans are declining

Editor's note: Sally Kohn is a progressive activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn.

(CNN) -- It's time for Chris Christie to come clean.

At a dramatic press conference last week, the New Jersey governor tried to apologize and said he had no advance knowledge of the lane closings on the George Washington Bridge. But he came across mostly upset that his senior staff had lied to him instead of upset that the citizens of Fort Lee, New Jersey, suffered during days-long politically motivated gridlock.

Plus, no amount of talking would mute the lingering questions: Even if Christie hadn't ordered the lane closings (a significant and still-to-be verified if), why wasn't he at least digging into the truth of the story in October and November, when the press and state legislators certainly were? Saying he just didn't know just doesn't seem credible.

Sally Kohn
Sally Kohn

At worst, Christie seems like a bully who ordered or inspired his staff to punish political opponents. At best, Christie seems like a passive leader who doesn't have a handle on his top staff. Either way, Christie is taking a hit; as a new poll shows, Christie's approval rating among New Jersey voters has fallen from 65% to 59% in one month.

Moreover, the incident has taken a toll on his personal reputation. A year ago, 70% of New Jerseyans held a favorable personal impression of Christie. Today, that number is just 44%. And cementing the sense that Christie hasn't told the full story, 51% of New Jerseyans said they believe Christie hasn't been completely honest yet about what he knows about the bridge closings.

Adding to Christie's woes and image problems is news, first reported by CNN, that federal investigators are looking into whether the governor improperly used $25 million in Hurricane Sandy relief on a tourism marketing campaign that featured Christie and his family. The ads ran in the lead-up to the 2013 election, in which Christie successfully sought a second term.

Did Christie misuse Sandy aid money?
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At the time, Democrats skewered the ads, as did some Republicans. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, like Christie considered a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, said in November, "That's a real problem and that's why when people who are trying to do good and trying to use taxpayers' money wisely, they're offended to see our money spent on political ads. That's just offensive." Of course, to New Jersey's hurricane victims, many of whom are still living in trailers and 75% of whom feel forgotten by the recovery, describing Christie using aid money as his personal slush fund as "offensive" is an understatement.

Meanwhile, just 15% of federal aid for Hurricane Sandy had actually been spent as of last fall. And that's just what we know now. Ironically for Christie, scandals are like gathering storms that tend to gain momentum and sweep up everything in their path.

In addition to previously reported stories about Chris Christie's bullying political persona, this week more New Jersey mayors came out of the woodwork to allege that the Christie administration retaliated against them for not endorsing his re-election. According to the Wall Street Journal, after declining to endorse Christie, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop found he was no longer able to get meetings with state commissioners to address key governance issues.

Fulop's name came up in the cache of e-mails recently released on the Fort Lee scandal. The day of the lane closings, when Christie's deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly e-mailed Port Authority appointee David Wildstein to ask if Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich's complaints had been responded to, Wildstein wrote back, "Radio silence. His name comes right after Mayor Fulop."

Mayor Dawn Zimmer of Hoboken said she has also suspected retribution from the Christie administration after she did not endorse the governor for re-election. Zimmer said she believes her city received less post-Sandy storm preparation funding because of her lack of endorsement.

Meanwhile, more e-mails and documents are coming out about the bridge scandal, implicating other members of Christie's senior staff and at least suggesting they knew about the alleged retribution scheme, or perhaps were more involved. That makes it even more far-fetched to imagine that Christie really only learned the truth a few days ago.

The media started sniffing around about political motivations for the bridge closures in mid-September. By mid-November, the State Assembly was convening hearings. By mid-December, Wildstein and Bill Baroni, Christie's top appointees at the Port Authority, had both resigned over the growing scandal. Why did Christie finally ask his staff for the facts around the lane closures a few weeks ago? Was Chris Christie stuck in traffic for three months? Did he willfully rip the rear view mirrors off and put on blinders?

NBC's Chuck Todd said that watching Christie try to defend himself was reminiscent of Bill Clinton's denying his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Indeed, the analogy is that Clinton was handicapped from the get-go by the common knowledge that he was a philandering cad, just as many New Jerseyans and voters across the country find it hard to believe that a governor known for being a political bully had absolutely nothing to do with the bridge scandal.

Chris Christie built his political career with a reputation for directness. But increasingly, it seems as though he has something to hide. And so the questions will keep mounting until Christie comes clean.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sally Kohn.

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