Prosecution and Defense Link Chris Christie to Bridgegate on First Day of Trial

by | September 20, 2016

By Andrew Seidman

A federal prosecutor told jurors Monday that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie knew about the September 2013 lane closures at the George Washington Bridge while they were underway, and suggested Christie and others not charged in the case could have done more to stop the scheme.

Defense attorneys piled on, signaling that the six-week trial of Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, a former top Christie appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, will likely be an ugly affair for the governor and his administration.

Kelly's lawyer showed jurors a PowerPoint graphic of Christie's "inner circle," which he said wanted to protect the governor _ and his presidential ambitions _ at all costs.

One of those people, Christie's former press secretary, Michael Drewniak, spoke of wanting to beat a newspaper columnist with a "lead pipe" to "put everyone on notice," according to Kelly's lawyer.

Central to the defendants' arguments was that Christie was far closer to David Wildstein, a former top Port Authority official who pleaded guilty to conspiracy last year, than he has acknowledged.

"When David Wildstein spoke, Gov. Christie's voice came out," Michael Baldassare, Baroni's lead attorney, told jurors in his opening statement on the trial's first day. "Everybody knew it," he said, adding that evidence would show that Wildstein "looks like a ventriloquist's doll, sitting on Christopher J. Christie's lap."

Michael Critchley Sr., Kelly's lead attorney, said Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo "were both involved" in the alleged cover-up, perpetuated in part through statements to the news media that the lane closures were part of a traffic study. "They were both talking to each other, talking what to do and how to do it."

A Cuomo spokesman said "the governor did not have any role _ direct or indirect _ in any press statements regarding the purported traffic study." Christie has repeatedly denied involvement.

The revelation potentially most damning to Christie on Monday was that prosecutors believe he was told about the scheme to cause gridlock in Fort Lee, Bergen County, during a Sept. 11 memorial event in Manhattan, on the third day of the lane closures.

The indictment alleges that Kelly worked with Baroni, Wildstein and "others" to punish the town's Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, because he refused to endorse the Republican governor for reelection.

"The evidence will show that Baroni and Wildstein were so committed to their plan ... that during those precious few minutes they had alone with the governor, they bragged about the fact that there were traffic problems in Fort Lee and that Mayor Sokolich was not getting his calls returned," Assistant U.S. Attorney Vikas Khanna told the jury of seven women and five men.

Christie has said he doesn't recall Wildstein telling him about the lane closures.

Khanna's opening statement continued: "The evidence in this case may show that others could have, should have, perhaps knew certain aspects of what was going on." But Khanna told jurors that they should consider only the conduct of Baroni, then the deputy executive director of the Port Authority, and Kelly.

Kelly and Baroni are charged with misusing Port Authority resources, wire fraud, and depriving the residents of Fort Lee of the constitutional right to localized travel. The Port Authority owns and operates the bridge.

Their attorneys appeared to be taking a two-pronged legal strategy: diminishing their own influence as political actors who could actually execute the scheme alleged by prosecutors, and presenting Wildstein as a maniacal political operative who was uniquely capable of carrying out the task.

Kelly was a "briefer" and "scheduler," who handled logistics such as planning who would attend Christie's town-hall meetings and breakfast at the governor's mansion, Critchley said.

She wasn't responsible for policy, he said, and wasn't making key decisions in Trenton or at the Port Authority.

When Kelly joined the Christie administration, she became acquainted with Wildstein, whom she knew to be a powerful figure and personal friend of Christie's "going back 30 years," Critchley said.

Kelly knew that Wildstein had been friends with Christie's chief strategist, Mike DuHaime, and campaign manager, Bill Stepien, for 10 years.

"She knew this guy was a powerful person," Critchley told the jury. "What she didn't know from hindsight: that this powerful person was crazy."

Similarly, though Baroni was the highest-ranking New Jersey official at the Port Authority, his lawyer told jurors that evidence will show his client was considered "weak."

Wildstein, by contrast, saw himself as Christie's enforcer and told everyone at the Port Authority that he was "Chris Christie's Rottweiler," Critchley said.

Christie had a different nickname for Wildstein, Baldassare said: "The governor used to joke that David Wildstein was his 'Mr. Wolf' from the movie 'Pulp Fiction,'" he said, referring to a smooth, mobster-like figure who helps remove evidence from a particularly bloody crime scene.

U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman walked out of the courtroom after Baldassare's comment.

In fact, Baldassare said, Christie sent Baroni to the Port Authority in 2010 only because the governor didn't think the "Republican-lite" state senator would rubber-stamp his agenda.

Baroni didn't thrive in his new role _ at least not in the one Christie wanted him to play, Baldassare said.

When Baroni wouldn't fire Port Authority executives Christie didn't like, the governor summoned him and Wildstein to Drumthwacket, the governor's mansion in Princeton, Baldassare said.

Christie "screamed at" Baroni, who was "forced to sit there" and watch Wildstein and the governor decide "which high-ranking officials to fire."

Itching to prove himself to the governor and perhaps play a major role in his expected presidential campaign _ such as New Hampshire state director _ Wildstein went to extraordinary lengths to try to win endorsements for Christie's 2013 re-election campaign, defense attorneys said.

For all the lawyers' attempts to discredit Wildstein, there remains the question of why Kelly sent her now-infamous Aug. 13, 2013, email to him, in which she called for "some traffic problems in Fort Lee."

Critchley said Wildstein told Kelly about a "preapproved" test to try to improve traffic flow and complained that the only reason Fort Lee even had three approach lanes to the bridge was a corrupt political deal struck by Democrats some 40 years ago.

Kelly's "traffic problems" message was simply a "casual exchange," he said, based upon her previous discussions with Wildstein.

Baldassare said Baroni didn't return Sokolich's messages seeking help during the gridlock because his client was told "that the study was important to Trenton" _ meaning Christie _ "and if the mayor was called back, it would mess up the results."

When Baroni heard about a public safety concern, though, he did inquire and was told "it had been handled," his lawyer said.

Expected to testify Tuesday are Sokolich; Pat Foye, executive director of the Port Authority; and Fort Lee's chief of police.

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