Christie’s Firing of Democrats Spotlighted at Bridge TrialBy
Defense begins cross-examination of Wildstein in bridge trial
Wildstein testified that Christie dubbed him ‘Winston Wolfe’
David Wildstein had worked at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey for only two weeks in 2010 when he was called in to see New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in Trenton. Christie held a list of names of Port Authority employees hired by previous administrations and said he wanted to fire Democrats at the agency to make room for fellow Republicans, Wildstein recalled.
“The governor went through the list and said who could stay and who could go and who there was no decision on,” Wildstein testified Wednesday at the trial of two former Christie allies accused of creating gridlock near the George Washington Bridge to punish a New Jersey Democratic mayor who didn’t endorse the governor in 2013.
Wildstein, the government’s star witness, recounted the partisan housekeeping as cross-examination got underway in the case against Bill Baroni, the Port Authority’s former deputy executive director, and Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff. Baroni’s attorney, Michael Baldassare, is seeking to show that it was Wildstein and others in the administration who were responsible for the traffic lane closures, not the two defendants.
The questioning of Wildstein, whom the defense has called Christie’s “enforcer” at the Port Authority, moved slowly in federal court in Newark as the defense builds a case that he lied to please prosecutors and reduce his possible prison term of 15 years. Wildstein, who will return to the witness stand on Thursday, has pleaded guilty in a bid for leniency and testified that Baroni and Kelly joined in the plot to create gridlock.
Even as prosecutors have built their case against Baroni and Kelly, the trial has spotlighted what Christie knew and when. Christie, who took office in January 2010 and is now a top adviser to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, had sought to depict himself as a bipartisan leader. The scandal helped to sink Christie’s own run for the White House.
Christie has repeatedly denied real-time knowledge of the traffic plot. He reiterated that to reporters Tuesday, saying that he "had no knowledge prior to or during” the jams. "There’s been no evidence ever put forward that I did.”
As cross-examination began, Baldassare displayed a photograph of Christie, Wildstein and their wives at the governor’s holiday party in December 2012.
Baldassare asked about the Port Authority list, suggesting Wildstein did the dirty work that Baroni was unwilling to do himself. Wildstein said he prepared the “red light/green light” list at the request of Bill Stepien, Kelly’s predecessor as Christie’s deputy chief of staff who later served as the governor’s campaign manager. Stepien now works for Trump as well.
“Am I right that as the governor went down that list - it was largely simply a cleansing out of Democrats, right?,” Baldassare asked. Wildstein agreed.
“Creating space for an influx of Republicans, correct?” Wildstein said yes.
Wildstein said Christie had once likened him to “Winston Wolfe,” a character in the 1994 Quentin Tarantino movie, "Pulp Fiction." Wolfe, played by Harvey Keitel, is a fixer who cleans up messy problems.
The Wolfe reference apparently became an inside joke between Wildstein and Baroni. In late November 2013, Baroni texted a photo of Keitel’s character as he headed to Trenton to testify before state lawmakers about the lane closings. Asked by a prosecutor to explain the reference, Wildstein said, "I understood he was going to Trenton to fix the problem."
Baldassare also questioned Wildstein about his testimony that he took Baroni’s computer hard drive home after he resigned in December 2013 and gave it to his lawyer, who later provided it to prosecutors. Baldassare has called it a theft; Wildstein said it was inadvertent.
The lawyer also displayed a series of texts that Wildstein exchanged with a friend two days before the lane closings began that suggested Wildstein was disloyal to Baroni.
Earlier in the day, Wildstein testified again about a meeting that he and Baroni had with Christie at the World Trade Center site on Sept. 11, 2013, the third day of the lane closings. Wildstein had said that Baroni bragged to Christie about the traffic and said the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, couldn’t get his calls returned. It was at that meeting Christie evoked the fictional Winston Wolfe.
The case is U.S. v. Baroni, 15-cr-00193, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Newark).