Christie Aide Backs Off Claim That Governor Lied Over Bridgeby
Renna said she used ‘poor choice of words’ about Christie
Christie gets rare burst of good news at trial over gridlock
A former aide to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie backed off an assertion she made in a text message that he “just flat out lied” during a 2013 news conference by saying his senior staff and campaign manager weren’t involved in the George Washington Bridge scandal.
Christina Renna testified Thursday at the trial of two former Christie allies accused of closing access lanes to the bridge in September 2013 as an act of political retribution against a mayor who didn’t back the governor’s re-election.
Renna had texted a colleague as Christie spoke at a news conference on Dec. 13, 2013, and denied his top staffers and former campaign manager Bill Stepien closed the lanes. Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, are on trial in federal court in Newark for their alleged roles in the scandal.
“Are you listening?” Renna wrote during the news conference, according to the text shown to jurors. “He just flat out lied about senior staff and Stepien not being involved.” When her colleague responded, she wrote, “Yes. But he lied,” adding that “it could be bad” if e-mails about the lane closings are uncovered.
Under questioning by a prosecutor on Thursday, Renna said the text was based on her assumptions of what Christie knew about the scandal. “It was a poor choice of words. I had no knowledge about whether the governor was lying or not.”
Christie, who fired Kelly and cut ties with Stepien in January 2014, has denied that he had any knowledge of the plot to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich. The Renna admission came as a rare burst of good news for Christie at the trial, which has featured unflattering testimony about him and his administration’s courting of Democrats.
Renna worked under Kelly at the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, which was supposed to give answers to local officials about state government but also wooed Democratic politicians to cross party lines and endorse Christie’s campaign.
Democratic mayors like Sokolich were invited to watch New York Jets and Giants football games in the governor’s private box, tour the World Trade Center site and dine privately with Christie at his mansion, Renna testified. In return, the IGA staff pressed Democrats for endorsements, consigning them in a “penalty box” of unreturned calls when they didn’t deliver, she said.
Renna testified about her once-warm relations with Kelly. She discussed an e-mail she sent during the Fort Lee gridlock saying that Sokolich was “extremely upset,” worried that he looked like an "idiot" and suspected he was the target of retribution.
After getting the e-mail, Kelly responded, “Good.” Renna, who was unaware of the plot at the time, told jurors that she didn’t know what Kelly meant.
That e-mail led to a dramatic exchange between Kelly and Renna on the night before the December news conference. Kelly called Renna to discuss the e-mail in which she responded “good,” Renna told jurors.
“She said you can read it a bunch of different ways, but I’m getting a lot of questions, so do me a favor and get rid of it,” Renna said.
Their call cut off and Kelly called back. In that second conversation, Kelly “was talking very fast, repeating herself a lot” and sounding frantic, Renna said.
Kelly said that whenever someone walks in her office, “I feel like I have to hide under my desk because I’m getting a lot of questions about it,” Renna testified, adding that Kelly then said, "If someone tells me something is OK, who am I to question it?”
Renna said that she deleted the e-mail the next day but sent a copy to a different e-mail account to preserve it.
The scandal exploded on Jan. 8, 2014, with the publication of an e-mail that Kelly sent to David Wildstein, a then Christie loyalist at the Port Authority, a month before the closings, saying: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Wildstein is now the government’s star witness.
That day, Kelly called Renna several times, jurors were told.
“She was crying and hysterical,” Renna said. “She apologized and said, ‘I’m so sorry, Christina.’ I said to her, ‘Have you spoken to the governor?’ She said he wouldn’t talk to me.”
She said that reporters had come to her house. As Renna spoke, Kelly wiped away tears at the defense table.
Renna resumes her testimony on Friday.
The case is U.S. v. Baroni, 15-cr-00193, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Newark).