TRENTON, N.J. -- 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" Mr. 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 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 Mr. 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," Mr. Wildstein replied. A few weeks later, Mr. Wildstein closed two of three lanes connecting Fort Lee to the heavily traveled George Washington Bridge, which runs between New Jersey and New York City.
The messages do not directly implicate Mr. 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 late Wednesday, Mr. 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.
Ms. 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.
The mayor said the gridlock put people in danger by holding up emergency vehicles, and he added that those responsible should resign.
While Mr. Sokolich is a Democrat, Mr. Christie sought bipartisan endorsements 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 is leading the investigation, said the material in the documents 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.
As the controversy heated up over the past few weeks, Mr. Wildstein resigned, as did Port Authority deputy executive director Bill Baroni, another Christie appointee. Mr. Wildstein, a childhood friend of the governor, is scheduled to testify today before a state Assembly committee, but he is fighting the subpoena.
One released text came from Mr. Sokolich, who pleaded on the morning of Sept. 10: "The bigger problem is getting kids to school. Help please. It's maddening."
Within minutes of Mr. Sokolich's plea, an unidentified person commented in a text message: "Is it wrong that I am smiling?" Someone joked in another text that the youngsters referred to by Mr. Sokolich "are the children of Buono voters" -- a reference to Mr. Christie's Democratic opponent for governor, state Sen. Barbara Buono.
Also among the correspondence, some of which was blacked out, is an email from Mr. Wildstein to Ms. Kelly on Sept. 7, two days before the lane closings. He said he would call her "to let you know how Fort Lee goes."
Most of the emails were sent using private accounts rather than government ones, which would be subject to open records laws and therefore public.
The Democratic National Committee seized on the disclosures, releasing a Web video that details Mr. Christie's prior assurances that neither he nor his staff had anything to do with the lane closings. "I've made it to very clear to everybody on my senior staff that if anyone had any knowledge about this, that they needed to come forward to me and tell me about it," he said in mid-December.
Mr. Sokolich said that because of the traffic backup, emergency calls that average a two- or four-minute response time took as long as 16 minutes.