Christie knew about Bridgegate as it happened, prosecutors say
Federal prosecutors say Gov. Chris Christie knew about plans to close lanes to the George Washington Bridge in 2013 and that the plot, which caused major gridlock and spurred a scandal that's implicated several of his close associates, was intended to punish the mayor of Fort Lee for not supporting him.
During opening statements Monday in the trial of two former Christie allies — deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly and former Port Authority executive Bill Baroni — federal prosecutors said Christie became aware of the plan on the third day of the four-day shutdown, which began Sept. 9, 2013.
The jury was told that Baroni and former Port Authority official David Wildstein "bragged" about the traffic issues during a conversation with the governor that took place during a 9/11 memorial ceremony in New York in 2013, just after the shutdown began.
"They bragged about the fact that there were traffic problems in Fort Lee and that Mayor (Mark) Sokolich was not getting his calls returned," Assistant U.S. Attorney Vikas Khanna told jurors.
Wildstein pleaded guilty to charges related to the closures last year. But Christie, who was not charged in the scheme, has repeatedly denied knowledge of plans to close down the traffic lanes. This is the first time that Christie has actually been accused of knowing about the plot as it was unfolding, the NY Times reported Monday.
He left a press conference Monday without commenting on Bridgegate
"This case is about he defendants' abuse of power and their callous disregard for the people of Fort Lee," Khanna said.
Khanna said the defendants "took personal political revenge over public service, put punishment over public safety," and "lied to put their plans into action and lied to get away with it."
Michael Baldassare, Baroni's lawyer, argued in his opening statement that "every single stop of the way, Bill Baroni acted in good faith" and that "the evidence will show their case is David Wildstein."
According to Baldassare, Wildstein has been described in government documents as a "vicious guy … bully … maniacal" and a "habitual liar."
"The government made a deal with the devil, and they're stuck with him," Baldassare said, adding that he believes it's "laughable" to say Baroni was responsible for bringing Wildstein to Port Authority. He said it was Christie's idea to give Wildstein the position in the Port Authority. Wildstein grew up in Livingston with Christie and attended high school with him, but the governor has insisted he did not spend time with Wildstein, and doesn’t remember him.
"David Wildstein implicated so many people in this activity that it will boggle your mind," Baldasare said.
Michael Critchley, Kelly’s defense attorney, went even harder after Wildstein in his opening statement than Baldassare had, devoting more than an hour of his roughly 80-minute statement to him.
Critchley told jurors they were “one more set of victims” in Wildstein’s manipulations, called him “a bizarre person” and “crazy” and a liar.
“He knows how to work the system. He knows how to sell the words. He’s a spinmeister,” Critchley said.
Critchley also went more directly after Christie and his team, at one point calling former chief of staff Kevin O’Dowd a liar. He said the case was “about a presidential campaign” – that Wildstein staged the closures to impress the governor and angle for a key role in the campaign and that the 2016 race is what motivated Christie loyalists to try to pin the blame on Kelly.
The trial stems from an incident that allegedly began with an email sent on Aug. 13, 2013 in which Bridget Kelly emailed Wildstein, saying: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Wildstein responded: “Got it.”
About a month later, access lanes to the George Washington Bridge were shut down. Prosecutors say Baroni, the highest ranking official at the Port Authority, ignored the Fort Lee mayor's pleas to re-open the lanes amid crippling gridlock. Baroni's attorney contended during his opening statement that Baroni didn't respond to Mayor Sokolich because he was busy and "wasn't sitting, waiting, looking for every text."
Baldassare also revealed in court Monday that Baroni assisted the FBI from 2006 to 2010, when he was a member of the Legislature. At that time, Christie was United States attorney. He said the FBI approached Baroni, who wasn’t paid for his assistance. He provided helpful leads and confirmed information about lawmakers and lobbyists, Baldassare said.
In addition, Baldassare said the FBI annually filed positive reports about Baroni’s helpfulness to investigators.
“They specifically found he was motivated because what he saw in Trenton made him sick,” Baldassare said.
— With reporting by Statehouse Reporter Michael Symons and the Associated Press
Toniann Antonelli is a social content producer for NJ 101.5. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @ToniRadio1015.
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