Bridge Jury Told Coverup Was Shaped to Protect Chris ChristieBy and
Wildstein says cover story ‘wouldn’t hurt Governor Christie’
Star witness at trial of Christie allies continues testimony
As the George Washington Bridge lane closings plot began unraveling in 2013, allies of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie worked on a cover-up plan that would protect him, the self-professed architect of the scheme testified.
Former Christie loyalist David Wildstein told federal court jurors in Newark on Tuesday that he didn’t want the public and state lawmakers to learn the real reason for closing two of three local access lanes to the bridge -- to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, for failing to endorse Christie’s re-election. Such a disclosure, he suggested, might inflict political damage on Christie, a then-popular Republican governor who wanted to run for president.
Wildstein said he and Bill Baroni, his boss at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, worked on a report in November 2013 with a “particular spin” -- that the lane closings were a traffic study designed to determine if it was fair to dedicate three of 12 lanes at the world’s busiest bridge to local drivers. The report would admit a “communications breakdown’’ between Fort Lee and the Port Authority, he said.
“Mr. Baroni and I felt at the time that that type of mea culpa was OK -– that the Port Authority could admit fault and that type of mea culpa wouldn’t hurt Governor Christie,’’ said Wildstein, who pleaded guilty to his role in the plot.
Wildstein is testifying at the trial of Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff. Baroni and Kelly are charged with conspiring with Wildstein, whom their lawyers call a scheming trickster trying to avoid prison.
On his third day of testimony on Tuesday, Wildstein told Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes that the true reason for the bizarre scheme wasn’t a communications breakdown.
“What was it?’’ Cortes asked Wildstein.
“It was a lie,’’ Wildstein said.
On Wednesday, Wildstein expanded on the exchange that he and Baroni had with Christie at a Sept. 11 memorial at the World Trade Center, where he said they bragged to the governor about “tremendous’’ traffic jams at the bridge and the mayor’s inability to get any explanation.
Wildstein told jurors that Christie "referred to me as Winston Wolfe from ‘Pulp Fiction.’ ” In the 1994 Quentin Tarantino movie, Wolfe, played by Harvey Keitel, is a fixer who cleans up messy problems.
The Wolfe reference apparently became an inside joke between the two. A few months later, as Baroni was headed to testify before state lawmakers about the lane closings, he texted Wildstein a photo of Keitel’s character from the movie.
Asked by a prosecutor to explain the reference, Wildstein said, "I understood he was going to Trenton to fix the problem."
Christie told reporters Tuesday that he "had no knowledge prior to or during” the jams. "There’s been no evidence ever put forward that I did.”
Wildstein testified that because of increased pressure on the Port Authority to “say something” about the lane closures, the cover-up report was intended to be released on the day before Thanksgiving. Wildstein said that Port Authority Police Benevolent Association President Paul Nunziato had “discussed his willingness” to have the police “say that they had made the suggestion” to close the lanes.
But Wildstein and Baroni abandoned that plan. Instead, Baroni allegedly used several of its phony points in testimony before the state Assembly Transportation Committee on Nov. 25, 2013. Prosecutors say that testimony was false in several ways.
Wildstein said he helped Baroni prepare for his testimony by working with Phillip Kwon, a Port Authority lawyer whom he described as “a loyal member’’ of Christie’s team.
“I told Mr. Kwon of my involvement and that I worked with members of the governor’s office to close the lanes for political purposes,’’ Wildstein said.
While Wildstein said that he could testify “without perjuring myself,” Kwon told him “it might make more sense for Mr. Baroni to appear before the committee” because “Baroni had not had any direct conversations with Miss Kelly about the lane closures.’’
Wildstein said he also met three days before Baroni’s testimony with Nunziato and another top police association officer. Baroni then insisted that he meet alone with the two cops, Wildstein said.
After that, Wildstein said, Nunziato said he believed that Wildstein was in trouble and “believed there was a possibility that I would be asked to leave the Port Authority to take responsibility for the lane closures.’’
Within two weeks, both Wildstein and Baroni had resigned. Neither Nunziato nor Kwon could be reached for comment late Tuesday.
The case is U.S. v. Baroni, 15-cr-00193, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Newark).