Christie ‘Enforcer’ Showed Underbelly of N.J. Politics

  • David Wildstein steps down as star witness on eighth day
  • Defense attorneys sought to portray Wildstein as scheming liar

As the government’s star witness in the trial of two allies of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, David Wildstein’s job was to narrate a bizarre plot to close access lanes at the George Washington Bridge to punish a local mayor and then cover it up.

Wildstein, a political junkie and former Christie loyalist, finished eight days of testimony in federal court in Newark that offered jurors sensational detail about the sordid underbelly of New Jersey politics.

Wildstein outside court in Newark, on Sept. 23.

Photographer: Peter Foley/Bloomberg

Defense attorneys were unable to shake Wildstein from his basic account of the traffic plot’s origins and purpose. But they raised plenty of questions about his character and credibility and showed that the crass use of government resources to curry political favors was simply business as usual in the Christie administration -- one of the pillars of the defense.

“David Wildstein had a ringside seat to the show,” said Brigid Harrison, a law and political science professor at Montclair State University. “New Jerseyans have a really strong stomach when it comes to bad political behavior. The image of the Christie administration that has been presented so far is beyond the pale even for New Jerseyans.”

Other Evidence

David Siegal, a former federal prosecutor, said defense attorneys’ efforts to impugn Wildstein’s credibility, however successful, may not matter given the other supporting evidence against the defendants. “Here, the story is almost self-corroborating, regardless of how unsavory Wildstein is, because of all the circumstances," he said. “A cross-examination that attempts to paint a cooperating witness as a criminal and a liar is only effective to the extent that testimony is not supported by corroborating evidence.”

Baroni, Christie, and Wildstein at the WTC site in 2013.

Source: United States Attorney’s Office

A lifelong practitioner of political dirty tricks, Wildstein, 55, brought those dark arts to the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which runs the bridge. He was the right-hand man to former deputy executive director Bill Baroni, who is on trial with Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff. They are accused of conspiring with Wildstein to close local access lanes to the bridge and create gridlock as political payback for the mayor of Fort Lee, who didn’t endorse Christie’s 2013 re-election bid.

For more on the bridge scandal, click here.

Defense attorneys told jurors that both Baroni and Kelly will take the stand in their own defense.

While the Port Authority runs airports, river crossings and the World Trade Center, Wildstein said he and Baroni served just one constituent -- Chris Christie. Witnesses at the trial have said Wildstein was reviled at the Port Authority as Baroni’s “bad cop” who fired or belittled perceived enemies.

Wildstein was the agency’s “enforcer” for Christie, a rising Republican star after his 2009 election and a front-runner for his party’s presidential nomination in 2016. Wildstein admitted that he dreamed of serving Christie in the White House.

On cross-examination, defense lawyers sought to show that Wildstein has lied all of his adult life and manipulated Baroni and Kelly into his ultimate dirty trick. They depicted Wildstein as a powerful insider in Christie’s world, suggesting it made no sense that Kelly would give him orders.

“I’m trying to show circumstantially that this individual is a very, very influential person in the Chris Christie world, inner circle,” Kelly’s attorney, Michael Critchley, told the judge, in a sidebar argument away from the jury.

Old Friends

Photos showed Christie and Wildstein grinning like old friends. Jurors saw images of Wildstein and Baroni with Christie on the third day of the gridlock during a Sept. 11 memorial service at the World Trade Center. Wildstein said they bragged about the traffic jams and Sokolich’s unreturned calls. Christie’s response: He laughed but didn’t say stop, Wildstein said.

Much of Wildstein’s testimony focused on the weeks after the gridlock ended in September 2013 and the creation of a cover story -- that the lane closings were part of a traffic study. Defense lawyers grilled Wildstein for hours about when and how fully members of Christie’s inner circle learned the truth, including his campaign manager, his political adviser, his press secretary and his chief of staff.

Defense attorneys sought to show that Wildstein, who pleaded guilty and faces as long as 15 years in prison, framed their clients to please prosecutors and try to win leniency at sentencing.

“You would not lie to put yourself in a good place at sentencing day, would you?” Critchley asked.

“Sir, my cooperation agreement requires me to tell the truth,” Wildstein said.

“You’re the arbiter against Bridget Kelly," Critchley said. "It’s your word against her word?” Prosecutors objected, and he left the witness stand.

Keeping Track

Wildstein was followed by Christopher Stark, who worked under Kelly in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. Stark recalled the office as a “one-stop shop” for local officials, mayors and civic leaders to get answers.

He said they began keeping track in 2011 of Democratic mayors who might endorse Christie’s re-election. Using a spreadsheet, they kept meticulous records of who sat in the governor’s box at professional football games, toured the World Trade Center or attended his speeches. 

Stark said the governor’s office maintained a “hands off” list of officials they weren’t supposed to contact. Stark said there were various reasons why officials landed on the “hands on” and “hands off” list, and he didn’t always know why. He recalled examples of officials ending up on that list, including a Monmouth County freeholder -- similar to a county commissioner -- who engaged in a salty exchange with Christie over the governor’s response to Hurricane Sandy. 

The freeholder, John Curley, apologized to the governor and later got back on the governor’s "hands on" list.

“You feel a lot of frustration when you see people who are that devastated. I was just happy and pleased that I stood and was representing the people who elected me,” Curley said in an interview on Wednesday. “I hold no malice toward the governor.”

The case is U.S. v. Baroni, 15-cr-00193, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Newark).

(Corrects spelling of attorney’s name in fifth paragraph.)
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