Testimony Claims Christie Learned of Bridge Closures at 9/11 Event -- and Laughed

by | September 28, 2016

By Dustin Racioppi and Peter J. Sampson

As pressure mounted for answers to what was causing traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge in 2013, top Port Authority officials were revealing details of their scheme to close the lanes but only to a circle of high-ranking officials that included Gov. Chris Christie, the admitted mastermind of the plot said in federal court Tuesday.

The continuing testimony from David Wildstein, the former Port Authority executive who has pleaded guilty in a deal with the government for a possible reduced sentence, offered the most detailed contradiction yet to Christie who has insisted, as he did again Tuesday, that he had no knowledge of the plot or any personal involvement.

Wildstein's testimony drew a portrait of a Christie team _ both in state government and in his re-election campaign _ that was ruthless in its pursuit of support and loyalty.

In his third day on the witness stand, Wildstein said that he and his boss at the time, former Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni, had been looking forward to telling Christie of the traffic jam and the unheeded pleas for help from their target, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, at the 12th anniversary ceremony of the Sept. 11 attacks. Sokolich was targeted because he did not endorse Christie's re-election campaign. Wildstein also testified how officials shut out Steven Fulop, another Democratic mayor who declined to endorse Christie, a Republican.

Baroni and Christie's former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, are on trial fighting charges of conspiracy, wire fraud and other federal crimes for their alleged roles in the scandal.

Wildstein said he told Kelly of the plan to tell Christie about the traffic in Fort Lee since "Ms. Kelly had previously said to me the governor is going to love this."

Before the ceremony, Wildstein and Baroni met Christie between the World Trade Center construction site and the Sept. 11 memorial, Wildstein said. Prosecutors showed several photos of the three men outside the ceremony.

Wildstein said Baroni spoke to the governor in a "very sarcastic tone."

"Mr. Baroni said to Governor Christie, 'Governor, there's a tremendous amount of traffic in Fort Lee this morning, a major traffic jam, and that you'll be pleased to know that Mayor Sokolich is very frustrated that he can't get his telephone calls returned,'" Wildstein said. Christie, Wildstein told the court, "responded by saying that 'I imagine he wouldn't be getting his phone calls returned.'"

Before being hired at the Port Authority, Wildstein ran a political website under the pseudonym Wally Edge. He said Tuesday that Baroni then told Christie that Wildstein was "monitoring traffic" and "watching over everything."

"Governor Christie said in a sarcastic tone of that conversation, he said, 'Well I'm sure Mr. Edge would not be involved in anything that's political," Wildstein said. "'I'm sure Mr. Edge would never do anything political,' and then he laughed."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes asked Wildstein if he and Baroni were bragging to the governor. "Yes, very much so" Wildstein said.

Cortes asked why.

"This was our 'one constituent,'" Wildstein said, referring to a rule he followed that the only person who mattered at the Port Authority was the governor. "I was pleasing our one constituent. I was happy that he was happy."

Christie has acknowledged meeting Wildstein that day, but has said Wildstein was one of hundreds of people he saw and that he doesn't have "any recollection" of the substance of their conversation.

Christie has not been charged or found to have had knowledge of the lane closures as they happened. He did not take questions from reporters at a news conference Tuesday, but reiterated his position of the last 2 { years since he said he learned of his allies' involvement of the scheme.

"I want the people of New Jersey to know that while this goes on up there, that the reason I am here and not there is because what I said in January of 2014 was true then, is true today, and it will never be proven to be anything but true," he said. "So we all must endure what's going on up there. ... But we will, because what we know is that from the moment all this became public, my one job was to make sure that I told the people of New Jersey the absolute truth.

"I have, I will continue to, and no matter what else anybody says, that will not change," he added. "So just so you don't think that I'm living in an alternate universe, I didn't want to leave here without saying that."

Wildstein said that the Port Authority chairman at the time, David Samson, soon arrived at that meeting outside ground zero on Sept. 11, 2013. Samson, once a mentor to Christie, has since resigned from the board and pleaded guilty to bribery in a federal investigation stemming from the lane closures.

According to Wildstein, Samson told Christie that he had received a call from Fulop to schedule a meeting.

Fulop went to Samson after several attempts to meet with Baroni, but, according to Wildstein, was instructed by Christie's re-election campaign manager at the time, Bill Stepien, to keep "radio silence" as payback to Fulop for not endorsing Christie.

Wildstein said Christie referred to Sokolich as well, and that Christie said, "The Port Authority wasn't to talk to either of the mayors."

Christie has told a grand jury that he canceled meetings with Fulop because he "did not merit any kind of special treatment" and that he didn't want to risk compromising his friendship with Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who is expected to run against Fulop in next year's Democratic primary for governor.

On Veterans Day in 2013, Wildstein said met Christie's close adviser Mike DuHaime in Westfield. There, Wildstein informed DuHaime that stories of his involvement were true and that he devised the lane closures to punish Sokolich. Wildstein said he had worked with the governor's office to carry out the closures. DuHaime, he said, was "upset with me" and told him it was "a very bad idea."

"He told me, 'I wish you had spoken to me. I would have told you not to do it,'" Wildstein said.

Wildstein said he relayed to DuHaime the Sept. 11 conversation with Christie and that "Governor Christie seemed to be enjoying it, enjoying the news" of the traffic jam.

"Mr. DuHaime told me that Governor Christie must have thought that Mr. Baroni and I were joking around," Wildstein said.

DuHaime told investigators hired by Christie after the scandal that he spoke with Christie "at some point" between Dec. 9 and 11 about the "growing controversy surrounding the lane realignment issue." It was then that DuHaime "mentioned" that he had recently spoken to Wildstein and that Wildstein admitted the traffic study was his idea.

DuHaime's attorney, Marc Mukasey, declined to respond to Wildstein's testimony since DuHaime is a potential witness in the case. But Mukasey said in an email that "Mike has, at all times, told the truth when he has been questioned about this matter and he will continue to do so."

By November 2013, a legislative committee had invited Baroni and Wildstein to testify about the lane closures. Wildstein said it was then that he told Philip Kwon, the Port Authority's deputy counsel appointed by Christie, of his involvement in the lane closures and that he had worked with the governor's office to execute the plan. Wildstein said he asked Kwon if there was any way he could testify without perjuring himself.

"He told me it might make more sense for Mr. Baroni to go ... because Mr. Baroni had not had any direct conversations with Ms. Kelly at that point," Wildstein said.

(Staff writer Salvador Rizzo of The Record contributed to this report.)

(c)2016 The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)