David Wildstein, a former ally of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, entered the federal courthouse in Newark as he prepares to plead guilty to his role in traffic jams he ordered near the George Washington Bridge, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.
Wildstein’s plea would be the first conviction in the 16-month U.S. probe of the September 2013 incident, which lawmakers said was done to punish a local Democratic mayor. The four-day closure triggered an investigation of the Republican governor’s aides and appointees as he readies a potential run for president.
U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton will hold a proceeding at 11 a.m. in the case, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said Friday. Fishman will hold a press conference at 1 p.m. on the probe.
Christie, 52, who has seen his popularity wane in recent months, has worked to repair the political damage of the scandal. A plea by Wildstein, 54, once a top appointee at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, could be a new setback.
Wildstein’s attorney, Alan Zegas, has said “evidence exists” that Christie knew of the lane closures when they happened, gridlocking traffic in nearby Fort Lee. Wildstein, a high school classmate of Christie, poses a threat to the governor, said Matthew Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University.
“If Mr. Wildstein has given that evidence to the prosecutors, I think it’s the end of Christie’s presidential aspirations and it may be the end of him as governor,” Hale said. “I don’t think he can recover from that.”
Christie denies knowledge of a plot to close two of the three local-access lanes to the world’s busiest bridge, which is run by the Port Authority and connects New Jersey to Manhattan and New England via Interstate 95.
The plot came to light with the publication of an e-mail sent a month before the 2013 closures by a former deputy chief of staff to Christie, Bridget Anne Kelly.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote on Aug. 13, 2013. “Got it,” replied Wildstein, then the interstate capital projects director at the Port Authority. He ordered the lane closures and monitored their progress at the bridge on the first day.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday after Bloomberg News first reported Wildstein’s planned guilty plea, Christie repeated what he said at a news conference Jan. 9, 2014. He said he had no advance knowledge of the lane closures.
“I don’t expect that anything’s going to be different than what I said on Jan. 9,” Christie said.
At that earlier news conference, Christie said he was “blindsided” and “embarrassed and humiliated” by members of his team. He fired Kelly and cut ties to Bill Stepien, a political adviser.
The closures paralyzed traffic in Fort Lee, delayed emergency crews and caused exasperation during the first week of the school year. Mayor Mark Sokolich repeatedly sought an explanation from Bill Baroni, a former deputy executive director at the Port Authority who ignored his pleas for help. Sokolich said he was being punished, and he didn’t know why.
Wildstein and Kelly monitored the mayor’s reaction until the shutdown ended early on the fifth day. Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye, an appointee of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, ordered the lanes reopened in an e-mail that said state and federal laws may have been broken.
Baroni and Wildstein, who both said the lane closures were part of a traffic study, resigned in December 2013 amid an intensifying investigation by state lawmakers.
Wildstein, a former mayor of Livingston, New Jersey, was also a political blogger who wrote under the name Wally Edge.
A law firm commissioned by Christie, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP and its lead lawyer, Randy Mastro, blamed the plot on Kelly and Wildstein, saying in a March 2014 report that the pair acted for an undetermined “ulterior motive” in punishing Sokolich.
Mastro’s firm charged taxpayers $7.4 million for its work.
State lawmakers, meanwhile, spent almost a year trying to figure out what the governor and members of his administration knew and when, issuing dozens of subpoenas and holding hearings that gripped the state capital of Trenton.
Their report last December also pinned blame on Kelly and Wildstein, while saying some key questions remained outstanding, including why Kelly sent Wildstein her “traffic problems” e-mail. It asked whether they acted on their own or with the knowledge and approval of anyone else.
“The evidence clearly suggests that the lane closures were intended as a punitive measure directed against Mayor Sokolich,” stated the report by the law firm Jenner & Block LLP. “What the committee cannot say for certain is whether the closures were intended as retribution for the mayor’s failure to endorse Governor Christie or some other, unknown reason.”
They acted with “perceived impunity” in an environment at the governor’s office and the Port Authority, in which they felt empowered to act with “little regard for public safety risks or the steadily mounting public frustration,” according to the report.
Fishman has also been investigating the role of former Port Authority Chairman David Samson in the lane closures. Additionally, he’s looking at weekly flights that United Continental Holdings Inc. offered between Newark Liberty International Airport and Columbia Metropolitan Airport in South Carolina, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from a house in Aiken that Samson’s wife owns.
Known to Samson and others as the “chairman’s flight,” it left Thursday afternoons and returned Monday mornings, running from September 2012 to April 2014.