- Wildstein implicates Trump aide, Port Authority commissioner
- Christie aide Kelly ‘pleased’ to hear of traffic, jury told
On the first day that a politically motivated traffic jam crippled a New Jersey borough next to the George Washington Bridge in September 2013, Governor Chris Christie’s “enforcer” drove to inspect the gridlock, he testified. Then he went to have breakfast at a diner.
David Wildstein, a former Christie appointee at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, recounted his satisfaction as he watched the mushrooming traffic jams on closed-circuit cameras and then in a police cruiser while thousands of motorists clogged the streets of Fort Lee, New Jersey. Wildstein told federal court jurors in Newark Monday that he orchestrated the jam to punish Fort Lee’s mayor for refusing to endorse Christie’s re-election bid in 2013, and it was timed for the first day of school to maximize the upheaval.
After eating at the Fort Lee diner with a Port Authority police lieutenant who escorted him through the snarling traffic, Wildstein then called the governor’s office to report to Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, that the plan they had hatched over the previous month was working.
"I told her traffic was an absolute mess," Wildstein testified. "She was pleased."
Kelly and Bill Baroni, the Port Authority’s former deputy executive director, are charged with conspiring to impede traffic and using government resources for political purposes. Wildstein, who pleaded guilty last year, testified for a second day as the prosecution’s star witness. Defense lawyers say Wildstein is a serial liar and manipulator who served as Christie’s enforcer at the Port Authority and seeks to frame Kelly and Baroni for his actions.
As Wildstein offered a day-by-day -- and at times hour-by-hour -- recitation of events, he also provided fresh details about the role of two high-ranking officials who he said knew about the scheme beforehand: Christie’s former campaign manager, Bill Stepien, and one of the Port Authority’s 12 commissioners, William "Pat" Schuber.
Wildstein testified that he told Stepien about his idea to retaliate against Fort Lee Mayor Mayor Mark Sokolich in August 2013. When Stepien asked him what cover story he would use, Wildstein said he replied that he would say the lane closings were part of a traffic study.
Wildstein also revealed that he informed Schuber at a local diner about the scheme to punish Sokolich two weeks before shutting down access lanes to the bridge over four mornings.
Wildstein testified that Baroni told him to warn Schuber, the former Bergen County executive, that "in a couple of week there was going to be a lot of traffic in Fort Lee, that it came from the governor’s office, and it was aimed at Mayor Sokolich." Wildstein said he was comfortable telling Schuber about the plot because he viewed him as a "loyal member" of Christie’s team.
Neither Stepien, now national field director for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, nor Schuber are accused of wrongdoing.
State Senator Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat who was in the courtroom, said after the proceedings that if Wildstein’s testimony is true, Schuber should resign.
"That is unacceptable," said Weinberg, who represents Fort Lee and led legislative hearings in 2013 where Schuber testified about the lane closings. She said he never mentioned the diner meeting described by Wildstein.
“Mr. Schuber categorically denies that he had any conversation whatsoever with David Wildstein about the lane closures," said Salvatore Alfano, his attorney.
Stepien’s lawyer, Kevin Marino, denied his client played a role in the scandal. Instead, Stepien told Wildstein he was running a campaign and didn’t want to get involved in Port Authority business, his lawyer said. "Mr. Wildstein’s sad and self-serving accusations from the witness stand may help him avoid prison for his admitted crimes, but they will not help the jury or the public learn the truth," Marino said, in an e-mail.
Wildstein said he came up with the idea of using the lane closings as a “leverage point” to pressure Sokolich into supporting Christie’s re-election bid that year.
Wildstein said the idea first came to him during a meeting at the bridge in 2011 when he noticed that traffic moved faster at three lanes set aside years earlier for local drivers.
“I noticed that those lanes were moving more quickly than the other lanes, and I immediately thought that they could be a potential leverage point with Mayor Sokolich down the road,” said Wildstein.
Soon after Christie took office, his aides set out to use Port Authority funds, property and favors to cajole Democratic local officials to endorse Christie’s 2013 re-election bid in order to position him as a bipartisan leader when he sought the Republican nomination for president in 2016. Christie’s presidential run was hampered by the scandal, known as Bridgegate, and he dropped out in February. He now advises Trump.
Baroni and Kelly face as many as 20 years in prison, while Wildstein faces 15 years.
Wildstein testified that he discussed with Baroni and Kelly the use of closing lanes as leverage, and the plot got underway after he got an e-mail on Aug. 12, 2013, from Kelly. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote in the e-mail, which jurors saw. “Got it,” Wildstein replied.
Wildstein told jurors that he spoke with Kelly for 16 minutes later that day. “I established in that call that this was something Miss Kelly wanted done,” he said. “I told her Mr. Baroni was informed, and he is on board as well.”
Wildstein resumes testimony on Tuesday.
The case is U.S. v. Baroni, 15-cr-00193, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Newark).