Gov. Chris Christie was told about the epic 2013 traffic jam at the George Washington Bridge while it was underway, seemed happy about it and joked sarcastically that there was nothing political going on, a former loyalist testified Tuesday in the scandal that helped destroy Christie’s White House ambitions.
David Wildstein, a former executive at the agency that oversees New York-area bridges and tunnels, took the stand for the prosecution at the trial of two one-time Christie allies accused of engineering the four days of gridlock to punish a Democratic mayor for not endorsing Christie. Wildstein has pleaded guilty.
Wildstein’s account was the first testimony to suggest that Christie knew about the scheme while it was unfolding.
Christie has repeatedly denied that and has not been charged with a crime.
On Tuesday, the Republican governor said: “All kinds of stuff is going on up in a courtroom in Newark. I want to be really clear: I have not and will not say anything different than I’ve been saying since January 2014. No matter what is said up there, I had no knowledge prior to or during these lane realignments.”
Bridget Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, a former executive at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, are on trial, charged with conspiracy, fraud, and civil rights deprivation in the alleged political revenge plot.
Wildstein, a former high-ranking official at the Port Authority, testified that Christie was told about the traffic in Fort Lee on the third day of the gridlock during a Sept. 11 memorial event.
Wildstein said Baroni told Christie there was “a tremendous amount of traffic in Fort Lee” that morning and that Mayor Mark Sokolich was “very frustrated” he wasn’t getting his phone calls returned. Baroni then told the governor that Wildstein was watching over the situation, Wildstein testified.
“Well, I’m sure Mr. Edge would never be involved in anything political,” Christie responded sarcastically, and then laughed, according to Wildstein. “Wally Edge” was a pseudonym Wildstein used while publishing a New Jersey politics website.
Prosecutors showed jurors several photographs from the day showing Baroni, Wildstein and Christie talking.
Wildstein said he and Baroni had talked the night before about telling Christie at the 9/11 event because they were proud of what they had done. He said that during the planning of the scheme, Kelly had said the governor was “going to love it.”
The closing of two of three access lanes to the George Washington Bridge caused bumper-to-bumper traffic in Fort Lee, held up school buses and emergency vehicles, and left drivers fuming behind the wheel for hours at one of the busiest spans in the world. The bridge connects New Jersey to New York City.
For months afterward, Port Authority officials insisted the lane closings were part of a traffic study. But the scandal broke wide open with the release of emails and text messages, including one from Kelly to Wildstein in which she said: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Last week, Wildstein testified that Christie’s office used the rich and powerful Port Authority to reward local Democratic officials whose endorsements were sought during Christie’s 2013 re-election campaign. Sokolich was one of the local officials courted by the Christie camp.
Christie was hoping at the time for a big landslide victory to demonstrate his crossover appeal if he were to run for president; he wound up winning re-election easily.
In the end, the scandal helped sink Christie’s White House campaign. While Christie once topped national polls ahead of the 2016 GOP primaries, he dropped out after New Hampshire and said recently that the scandal probably influenced Trump’s decision not to pick him as his running mate.
While Christie is now leading Trump’s transition team, Trump said last December that Christie “totally knew” about the lane closings.
The furor has brought to light some of the hardball tactics used by the Christie administration and reinforced his reputation as a bully. In the 2 1/2 years since the scandal broke, his critics have argued that even if he didn’t know about the traffic scheme, he created an atmosphere in which his underlings believed such tactics were acceptable.
Christie, whose name is on a list of potential witnesses at the trial, has been meeting the attention recently with a heavier-than-usual schedule.
On Monday, Wildstein testified that he informed Christie’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, about the lane-closing plot shortly before it was put into action. A Stepien lawyer denied it, and Stepien — who is now working for Trump’s presidential campaign — has not been charged.