Prosecutors on Monday said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was told about a politically motivated scheme that shut down the nation’s busiest bridge as it was happening, the first time officials have alleged in court that Christie knew about the plot as it was going on.
The assertion came during the “Bridgegate” trial of two of Christie’s former aides, whom prosecutors accuse of hatching a plan to create a mammoth traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge to retaliate against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not supporting Christie’s reelection bid.
During opening statements Monday in Newark, federal prosecutors said one of the former aides, William E. Baroni Jr., the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and a third Christie associate, David Wildstein, a former Port Authority executive, informed the governor about the traffic shutdowns during a Sept. 11 memorial service in 2013.
“The evidence will show that . . . 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 said.
Christie’s office did not comment on Monday’s proceedings. It pointed to a 2014 interview with a New Jersey radio station, when Christie said he didn’t know anything about the plans to close the lanes and first learned about it through media reports.
Christie, a former U.S. attorney, is a prominent backer of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. The allegation that he knew despite years of public proclamations to the contrary could cause a headache for the Trump campaign, which routinely deploys Christie as a campaign surrogate and has tasked him with managing a transition if Trump wins in November.
Alan Zegas, Wildstein’s attorney, wrote in a 2014 letter that there is evidence “tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures” as they were closed. Zegas did not return a call seeking comment.
The trial comes just over three years after what first appeared to be a small-scale problem that people in New Jersey face every day: snarled traffic on one of the world’s busiest bridges.
But this traffic jam was different, with people stranded for hours and Fort Lee rendered impassable for four straight days. The closings later exploded into a political scandal for Christie, who at the time was riding high and floated as a top contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
The way federal prosecutors told it at the start of their trial, the two Christie allies — Baroni and Bridget Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs — wanted to punish Sokolich for refusing to support Christie’s gubernatorial reelection bid. Wildstein will allege that he and Baroni told Christie of the reason behind the traffic snarls.
Together with Wildstein, who has pleaded guilty and is expected to testify against Baroni and Kelly, the pair allegedly orchestrated shutting down the lanes and toll booths on the George Washington Bridge.
On the first day of the school year in Fort Lee, without any advance notice to local officials, commuters found themselves stuck in serious backups, and Sokolich’s calls for an explanation were ignored. Prosecutors alleged that those who created the jam then hatched a coverup scheme, claiming the lane closures were caused by a traffic study when their real aim was political: to punish Sokolich, a Democrat, for not endorsing Christie, a Republican.
In an August 2013 email launching the plan, Kelly told Wildstein, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” according to prosecutors.
During the Republican primaries, Trump had harsh words for Christie about the bridge scheme: “He totally knew about it,” Trump said last December.
At a December 2013 news conference, Christie asserted that no one implemented the lane closures on his behalf, and that Bill Stepien, who managed Christie’s campaign, had assured him he had no knowledge of it. At the time, records would later show, two other aides mused in a text conversation that Christie was not being truthful.
“Are you listening? He just flat out lied about senior staff and Stepien not being involved,” Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Christina Genovese Renna wrote, according to a court filing from Baroni’s defense attorneys.
“I’m listening,” campaign staffer Peter Sheridan responded. “Gov is doing fine. Holding his own up there.”
“Yes. But he lied. And if emails are found . . . it could be bad,” Renna wrote back.
Baroni and Kelly are charged with conspiring to misuse Port Authority property by fraud and conspiring to deprive people of their civil rights. Their attorneys have asserted that prosecutors stretched to allege a crime where none existed and that, even if the allegations were true, Baroni and Kelly were acting within their legitimate authority.
“At its core, this case boils down to a simple issue: Can Ms. Kelly be charged with a federal crime for allegedly conspiring to cause traffic in Fort Lee to allegedly punish Fort Lee Mayor Sokolich for not endorsing Governor Christie’s reelection campaign? The answer is no for any number of reasons.” Michael Critchley, an attorney for Kelly, wrote in a pretrial filing.