(Updates with investigation)
By Victoria Cavaliere
TRENTON, N.J., Jan 9 (Reuters) - The U.S. attorney in New Jersey will open an inquiry into claims that public officials orchestrated a massive traffic snarl on the busy George Washington Bridge to settle a political score, the New York Times reported on Thursday.
The report appeared just minutes before Governor Chris Christie, a possible Republican White House contender, was due to address the brewing scandal over his staff's role in orchestrating the traffic jam after a local mayor declined to endorse Christie's re-election bid.
U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman was expected to announce on Thursday that his office will begin a preliminary inquiry into the lane closures, the Times reported, citing a law enforcement source.
The controversy erupted with the public release of incriminating emails showing that a top aide to Christie played a key role in closing some lanes to the bridge, in a ploy to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey.
The George Washington Bridge, one of the busiest spans in the world, connects New York City to Fort Lee. The abrupt lane four-day closures in September caused hours-long traffic jams and held up the passage of school buses and ambulances.
The incident threatens to tarnish Christie's image and national standing as he weighs a 2016 bid for the White House.
Christie said in a written statement on Wednesday that he had been misled by his staff, knew nothing of the lane closings before they occurred and vowed to hold people "responsible for their actions."
In the most damning email, Christie aide Bridget Anne Kelly, wrote to a Port Authority executive in August, saying: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."
The executive, David Wildstein, replied: "Got it."
In another message sent amid the gridlock, an unidentified author wrote: "Is it wrong that I'm smiling," and Wildstein responded: "No." (Reporting by Edith Honan and Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Gunna Dickson)