Gov. Chris Christie insisted Wednesday he was "misled" by an aide after emails emerged showing she gave the go-ahead for lanes to be closed on the George Washington Bridge as political retaliation last year.
Christie, who had previously denied his administration was involved in the closure of the lanes in September, said in a statement after the emails were released that they were "unacceptable."
"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," he said. "...This behavior is not representative of me or my administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions."
The messages showed that about three weeks before the lanes were shut down, Bridget Anne Kelly, a Christie deputy chief of staff, emailed David Wildstein, then a Christie appointee at the Port Authority, which controls the bridge.
"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Kelly wrote.
A few weeks later, on the weekend before the lane closures, Wildstein wrote to her: "I will call you Monday AM to let you know how Fort Lee goes."
Democrats have suggested the two local access lanes were closed to punish Fort Lee's mayor for refusing to endorse Christie. Christie has denied that.
The unannounced closings caused traffic backups that lasted hours on streets in Fort Lee, where the mouth of the bridge is located.
Text messages also obtained by NBC 4 New York and other news outlets Wednesday show an unidentified person texting Wildstein about the Fort Lee mayor, Mark Sokolich, asking for help on the second day of the closures: "Is it wrong that I am smiling?"
He texted back: "No."
The other person texted about feeling bad for children not being able to get to school because of the traffic.
Wildstein wrote back: "They are the children of Buono voters," referring to Christie's 2013 opponent for governor, Democrat Barbara Buono.
The lanes were ordered reopened after four days by the executive director of the authority, an appointee of Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The Justice Department has received a request to look into whether any federal laws were broken by the lane closures, federal officials said. Representatives for federal prosecutors in New Jersey, New York and at the Justice Department all declined comment.
The state legislature, the Port Authority and a federal agency are all investigating the matter.
Wildstein handed over the messages to the state Assembly's transportation committee after a subpoena.
Sokolich said that because of the traffic backup, emergency calls that average a two- or four-minute response time took up to 16 minutes.
"To me it's appalling and I got to tell you, somebody owes a lot of people a lot of apologies," he said. "Somebody ought to contact families waiting two, three, four times the response times when their loved ones had chest pains. Someone has to apologize to the thousands of families who couldn't get their kids to the first day of school on time."
Fort Lee Councilwoman Ila Kasofsky said she knows of one woman who couldn't get over the bridge to be with her husband, who was undergoing a stem cell transplant, and another who couldn't get to New York to be with her son as he went through kidney dialysis.
Also, she said, the heavy traffic delayed the search for a missing child, who was later found.
"I think this is 10 times worse than Watergate. Because this affected so many more lives and their health and safety," she said.
Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman John Wisniewski, a Democrat who has been holding hearings on the lane closures, said the messages are "shocking" and "outrageous" and call into question the honesty of Christie and his staff.
Christie, a star in the Republican Party who's considered a possible candidate for president in 2016, has nurtured an image as both a tough talker who takes on such adversaries as public workers' unions and a politician willing to compromise. Democrats have increasingly criticized him for what they see as him tending to his national profile at the expense of taking care of New Jersey issues.
Wildstein, a childhood friend of the governor, has resigned over the lane closings, as has Christie's top Port Authority deputy, Bill Baroni. Both have hired lawyers. Wildstein is scheduled to testify under oath on Thursday before a state Assembly committee conducting one of the three investigations.
A Christie spokeswoman said Kelly was not available for comment.
--Pete Williams contributed to this story