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New Jersey State Assembly Speaker-elect Vincent Prieto, a former plumber and bodybuilder who was born in Cuba, is vowing to get to the bottom of the apparently deliberate plan to create traffic gridlock in a town at the base of the George Washington Bridge.
Prieto, who as speaker will hold the third most powerful position in New Jersey’s government, said he plans to convene a special session Thursday to vote on extending the investigation that has already revealed that high-ranking officials in Gov. Chris Christie's administration were involved in ordering the lane closures.
"Given the new information that has come to light… I plan a thorough review of the documents received from the Port Authority officials," Prieto said in a statement released last week.
His statement came after emails that were made public revealed high-ranking Christie aides and appointees were involved in ordering lane closings in September as apparent political payback that led to massive gridlock in the town of Fort Lee.
On Monday, Prieto and other state Democratic legislative leaders said they were forming special legislative committees to explore the role politics played in traffic jams last fall and announced that the investigation has grown into an abuse of power probe.
The intensifying investigation threatens to undermine Christie's second term and possibly even his chance at becoming the 2016 Republican nominee for the presidential election.
A new special Assembly committee, given subpoena power and a special counsel, will be charged with finding out how high up the chain of command the seemingly deliberate plan to create traffic gridlock in Fort Lee, a town at the base of the George Washington Bridge, went after its mayor refused to endorse Christie for re-election.
"It is clearly an abuse of power," said a leading state Democrat, Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald. "The question is, who abused their power and how high did it go?"
Christie himself has apologized but denied any involvement. He fired deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly, whose name appeared as a participant on an email chain that ordered the vindictive closing of lanes around the bridge. Christie also cut ties with campaign adviser Bill Stepien.
Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman John Wisniewski said last week that both of them could receive subpoenas soon.
Christie is scheduled to deliver his State of the State address on Tuesday. His inauguration is planned for next week at Ellis Island, historically a gateway to the United States for millions of immigrants.
The setting is meant to showcase Christie's inclusiveness and his ability to appeal to a broad swath of voters – an image he has tried to cultivate in the hope, many observers say, of being viewed by the national Republican establishment as someone who can win the White House back for the party in 2016.
The state Senate – where Democrats also have a majority – announced that it planned to establish its own committee, also with subpoena power.
Meanwhile, on a national level, Democratic and Republican eyes are on Christie, as well.
Prominent Republicans leapt to Christie's defense on Sunday, insisting that an ongoing traffic scandal wouldn't ruin any presidential ambitions, while Democrats say it's difficult to believe such a hands-on manager knew nothing about a plan by a top aide to close lanes at a bridge into New York City.
Politicians from both sides of the aisle took to the Sunday talk shows to debate the fallout from the traffic jams near the George Washington Bridge and any role Christie may have played.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told NBC's "Meet the Press" Christie could move past the scandal and still win support from primary voters in the 2016 presidential race.
He said Christie demonstrated leadership by holding a lengthy news conference Thursday to apologize for the scandal, the most serious challenge to his political career, and to disavow any knowledge of its planning.
"America's a forgiving people, but they're forgiving when you take ownership, you admit mistakes, you take corrective action, and that's what Chris Christie showed," Priebus said.
The Democratic National Committee, meanwhile, has started a fundraising campaign aimed at weakening Christie’s 2016 prospects.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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