By Andrew Seidman
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's former campaign manager, Bill Stepien, who a prosecution witness testified knew in advance of the politically motivated lane closures at the George Washington Bridge, will serve as White House political director in the Trump administration.
Stepien, who joined Donald Trump's campaign in August, will also be deputy assistant to the president, the Trump transition team announced Wednesday.
After the bridge scandal erupted in January 2014, Christie ousted Stepien from his circle, demanding that he resign from a consulting job at the Republican Governors Association and that he take his name out of the running for chairman of the New Jersey GOP.
Christie was chairman of the RGA at the time and had tapped Stepien to lead the state party after his landslide re-election in November 2013.
In a twist, Christie, who was among the first high-profile Republicans to endorse Trump, lost his position as Trump's transition chief and was denied the vice presidential nomination in part because of the bridge scandal.
Now a former aide touched by the scandal _ and fired by Christie because of it _ has landed a job in the Trump White House.
In April, a nonprofit "think tank" chaired by New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno hired Stepien as executive director. Presumably, Stepien will have to step down, but the group couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday. The nonprofit, which can engage in some political activity, is seen as a platform for Guadagno for a potential run for governor; she's expected to announce her intentions soon.
Stepien was neither charged in the bridge case nor called to testify, but his name came up prominently during six weeks of testimony in the criminal trial of former Christie aide Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni, the governor's top executive appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
A federal jury in November found Kelly and Baroni guilty of seven felony counts each, including conspiring to intentionally misuse port authority resources. They have asked for new trials and vowed to appeal the verdict.
Prosecutors accused Kelly and Baroni of conspiring with former port authority official David Wildstein to close local access lanes in Fort Lee, Bergen County, to the bridge in September 2013 in order to punish the town's mayor for his refusal to endorse Christie's re-election campaign that year.
Wildstein, who pleaded guilty in the case and cooperated with the government, testified during the trial that he informed Stepien about the plot in advance.
"Mr. Stepien asked about what story are we going to use," Wildstein told jurors in September. "I explained to Mr. Stepien that I was going to create the cover of a traffic study."
Stepien's attorney has denied those allegations.
Between his stints managing Christie's 2009 and 2013 campaigns, Stepien was the governor's deputy chief of staff for intergovernmental affairs.
Evidence presented at the bridge trial suggested that Stepien ran his taxpayer-funded office as a political arm that could dole out favors to elected officials who might endorse Christie _ and retaliate against those who didn't.
"It's good to be an incumbent with stuff to offer, ain't it?" Stepien wrote Wildstein in an October 2011 email, ticking off such carrots as tours of the new World Trade Center and tickets to the governor's suite at sports games.
Kelly was Stepien's successor in that role, and prosecutors sought to use their close relationship as evidence of Kelly's importance in the administration.
"Stepien was her teacher, her mentor," Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes told jurors during his closing argument. "Bridget Kelly was the student."
Prosecutors suggested that Stepien taught Kelly the skills they say she would use to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich in the bridge scheme.
"Bill is trying to teach me the dead to me gene. I have it for a lot of ppl. Need it for more," Kelly wrote Wildstein in a December 2010 email, referring to Stepien.
The "dead to me" gene, prosecutors said, helped explain Kelly's treatment of Sokolich, a Democrat. The lane closures caused days of massive traffic jams in town, and the mayor tried to reach the governor's office and the port authority for help.
When Baroni, deputy executive director of the port authority, received a message from Sokolich on the first day of the lane closures regarding an "urgent matter of public safety in Fort Lee," Kelly asked Wildstein if Baroni had responded.
"Radio silence," Wildstein wrote Kelly in a text message Sept. 9, 2013. "His name comes right after mayor Fulop."
"Ty," Kelly texted, meaning thank you.
She had heard the phrase "radio silence" before in the context of punishing a political enemy.
In the summer of 2013, just months before the lane closures, Christie and his allies decided to cancel meetings with Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, another Democrat who had not endorsed the governor.
When Fulop tried to reschedule a meeting with Baroni, Wildstein emailed Stepien for direction on July 22, 2013.
Stepien copied Kelly on his response: "Radio silence."
(c)2017 The Philadelphia Inquirer