New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed off on a plan to issue a report that falsely blamed a communications failure at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey for politically motivated lane closings that tied up traffic near the George Washington Bridge in 2013, according to testimony in a New Jersey trial.
Cuomo agreed to back the fake report because he didn’t want the gridlock at the bridge to escalate into a political problem for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who also approved the plan, according to testimony from David Wildstein, a key government witness at the trial of two of Christie’s former allies.
Wildstein pleaded guilty to participating in a plot to create gridlock near the bridge to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, for not backing Christie’s re-election. He said he was told in October 2013 the governors agreed that the report by the Port Authority, a bi-state agency that runs the bridge, wouldn’t cite the true reason.
He said he was told that “if a report was issued that the Jersey side would take responsibility for it, that would put an end to this.” Christie, a Republican, and Cuomo, a Democrat, appoint the top people at the powerful agency, which is often riven by political rivalries between the states.
Wildstein said he learned about the conversation between the two governors from former Port Authority Chairman David Samson, who pleaded guilty in a separate corruption case. But it wasn’t clear from Wildstein’s testimony how much, if anything, Cuomo knew about the real reason for the lane closings.
“The only role New York played in this episode was a positive one: it was our executive director who blew the whistle,” said John Kelly, a Cuomo spokesman. “To be clear, no such conversation between the governors happened. In fact no report of any kind was ever done, and whatever the admitted Bridgegate architect thought or dreamt about New York’s involvement has no basis in fact.
“Anyone can say anything, especially a convicted felon spinning a tale, but it’s just false and delusional,” Kelly said.
Wildstein was questioned by a lawyer for Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff. She is on trial in Newark with Bill Baroni, the Port Authority’s former deputy executive director, for their alleged roles in the lane closings.
The report wasn’t issued. But it formed the basis for false testimony that Baroni gave in late November 2013 to a legislative committee, saying the lane closings were part of a traffic study, Wildstein previously testified.
Patrick Foye, the Port Authority executive director and a Cuomo appointee, ended the lane closings on the fifth morning in September 2013, saying they were a threat to public safety and illegal. Christie’s allies viewed Foye’s actions as a political threat to the governor, according to Wildstein and emails and texts shown to jurors.
Wildstein was asked about a text exchange he had on Oct. 2, 2013, with Christie’s then-press secretary about Kevin O’Dowd, the governor’s chief of staff at the time.
“I briefed O’Dowd on the Foye madness,” Michael Drewniak, the press secretary, texted to Wildstein. “He gets it and is taking it seriously.”
When Kelly’s attorney Michael Critchley asked Wildstein what it meant, he said: “That Governor Christie was in the middle of an election, that Mr. Foye was becoming involved and could potentially hurt Governor Christie, and that Mr. O’Dowd now understood and had reached out to Albany to get Foye to back off.”
Critchley also asked Wildstein repeatedly about Kelly’s role in the machinations of Christie’s inner circle, and he acknowledged that she wasn’t involved.
Wildstein also recounted a 2011 meeting at the State House rotunda in which he, Christie and the governor’s inner circle stood and admired a portrait of a former governor, Wally Edge. Wildstein spent a decade as an anonymous political blogger using the pseudonym Wally Edge.
Christie, he said, was having the painting moved from the third floor of the rotunda to the governor’s first-floor office, an apparent homage to Wildstein.
Critchley seeks to show that Wildstein was a trusted member of Christie’s inner circle who carried far more influence than Kelly and therefore wouldn’t have needed her to pull off the lane closings.