A federal prosecutor told jurors on Monday that a witness will testify that Gov. Chris Christie was told about a plan to close traffic lanes near the George Washington Bridge as part of a political vendetta while the shutdown was happening, a claim Christie has contested for years.
The trial comes three years after gridlock paralyzed a town next to the busy bridge, which connects New Jersey and New York City, for four days. Prosecutors said two former Christie allies, Bill Baroni and Bridget Kelly, had sought political revenge against Democratic Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, who didn’t endorse Christie for re-election.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Vikas Khanna told jurors that another Port Authority official, David Wildstein, who pleaded guilty in connection with the scandal last year, will testify he and Baroni made Christie aware of the plan during a Sept. 11 memorial in New York in 2013, three days after the gridlock started.
“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,” Khanna said.
Christie has denied knowing about the scheme until well after it was carried out, but he conceded last week that the bridge scandal was a factor in GOP nominee Donald Trump’s not picking him as a running mate.
Defense attorneys spent considerable time in their opening statements castigating Wildstein, a former political blogger who they called Christie’s hatchet man at the Port Authority.
They characterized him as a vulgar, power-smitten opportunist aiming to ride Christie’s coattails to Washington, D.C., at a time when Christie, about to easily win re-election, was seen as a top presidential hopeful.
“The idea that Bridget Kelly is directing the affairs of the state of New Jersey is almost laughable,” said Kelly’s attorney, Michael Critchley. “They wanted to throw her, in some sense, under the presidential bus.”
In the government’s opening, Khanna described how crushing gridlock engulfed Fort Lee on four days beginning Sept. 9, 2013, and how the defendants ignored Sokolich’s texts, emails and voicemails seeking help.
Kelly’s “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email to Wildstein was sent Aug. 13, 2013, a day after she was notified Sokolich wouldn’t endorse Christie. Critchley said Kelly regretted sending the email but it was merely joking banter taken out of context.
Witness testimony is scheduled to begin Tuesday, with Fort Lee’s police chief.