Trump Campaign Aide, Like Christie, Looms Over Bridge Trialby
Stepien not charged but witness said he knew why lanes closed
State’s case winds to close with tales of goodies, punishments
Bill Stepien wasn’t charged as part of the George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal, and he has consistently maintained he had nothing to do with it.
But like his former boss, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whose conversations and actions have been chronicled in titillating detail, Stepien has been frequently invoked at the trial of two Christie allies for a bizarre plot known as Bridgegate, though he hasn’t actually been in the courtroom.
Prosecutors on Thursday rested their case against Bridget Anne Kelly, a former deputy chief of staff to Christie, and Bill Baroni, an ex-deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. Over the past four weeks in federal court in Newark, witnesses have described Stepien, now a top aide to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, as a gifted political guru who was both brilliant and brutal.
As an official in the Christie administration who helped him win two elections, Stepien oversaw an effort to woo Democratic officials to enhance the Republican governor’s image as a bipartisan star and strong presidential candidate. And he enforced the freezing out of Democrats who declined to endorse Christie, witnesses said.
Stepien also knew about the plan to close access lanes and snarl traffic near the George Washington Bridge in September 2013, according to David Wildstein, the government’s star witness. Wildstein, who admitted he came up with the idea to punish the mayor of nearby Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie’s re-election, pleaded guilty in a bid for leniency at sentencing.
When asked what Stepien, the national field director for Trump’s campaign, knew of the plot, his attorney, Kevin Marino, said, “Despite what Mr. Wildstein apparently feels compelled to say now, Mr. Stepien had no role in planning, approving or concealing his ill-advised scheme to close access lanes to the GWB.”
Rather, Marino said, Stepien explicitly told Wildstein he was running Christie’s campaign and didn’t want to be involved with the Port Authority, which owns the bridge.
Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
As a deputy chief of staff for Christie, Stepien ran the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, which was supposed to advise local officials about state government. But the office also helped dole out gifts and favors to induce Democrats to endorse Christie, according to witnesses and evidence at the trial. IGA employees used the Port Authority as a "goody bag" of gifts to distribute to Democratic officials, such as steel remnants from the wreckage of the World Trade Center site and flags that flew over it, Wildstein and other witnesses said.
‘Quite the Snake’
Stepien also decided who got punished for disappointing Christie, such as Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop. He referred to Fulop as “quite the snake,” said he deserved “radio silence” and urged colleagues to “continue to ice him,” according to e-mails shown to jurors.
When Stepien left in the spring of 2013 to run Christie’s re-election campaign, Kelly succeeded him as deputy chief of staff. One IGA worker, Christopher Stark, testified that Stepien and Kelly were close professionally, and she tried to emulate him. A law firm hired by Christie’s office to investigate the bridge plot, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLC, concluded their relationship had turned romantic that summer, before Stepien broke it off. Jurors heard nothing of a romance.
Wildstein, a former small town mayor and political junkie, said he and Stepien had a “very close personal friendship.” They met during a 2000 congressional campaign, and stayed in touch as Wildstein anonymously wrote a political blog and Stepien worked on national campaigns.
Wildstein, who told jurors about his numerous lies and political dirty tricks, said he regarded Stepien as a protege and was proud of his accomplishments. Together, they mused about Christie’s possible election as president, Wildstein said.
Stepien was managing Christie’s campaign when the plan to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich was put in motion. In August 2013, Kelly sent Wildstein an e-mail that said: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Wildstein said he then told Stepien that he heard from Kelly “to close the Fort Lee lanes, and that I was moving forward to do so.”
Wildstein told jurors, “Stepien asked what story we were going to use. And I explained to Mr. Stepien that I was going to create the cover of a traffic study.”
Wildstein said he first told Stepien in 2011 about the possibility of using the bridge access lanes as a “leverage point” with Sokolich. The Gibson Dunn report on the lane closings said Wildstein told Stepien about a traffic study. But Stepien dismissed it as “one of Wildstein’s ‘50 crazy ideas.’ ”
As the scandal slowly came to light in the fall of 2013, pressure grew on Wildstein, Kelly, Baroni and Stepien. Wildstein and Baroni resigned in late 2013. But Stepien’s fortunes improved, at least initially.
On Jan. 7, 2014, Christie appointed him chairman of the state Republican party, saying no one understood better how to communicate the party’s message and win elections. Stepien had also begun work as a consultant to the Republican Governors Association, which Christie then ran.
“Bill Stepien is the best Republican operative in the country,” Christie said at the time.
The next day, Kelly’s “time for some traffic problems” e-mail became public, as did a separate e-mail in which Stepien referred to Sokolich as an "idiot.”
Kelly was fired, and Christie cut ties with Stepien, too. The governor said he had lost confidence in him.
In court on Thursday, prosecutors played a videotape of Baroni testifying in November 2013 to state lawmakers investigating the lane closings. He said the gridlock was part of a traffic study requested by Port Authority police. Wildstein had testified the traffic study was a phony cover story to hide their intent to punish the mayor. Baroni’s lawyers also called their first witness, Charles McKenna, Christie’s former chief counsel.
The case is U.S. v. Baroni, 15-cr-00193, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Newark).