Since 2013, when lane closures at an entry to the George Washington Bridge created a massive — and it soon became clear, politically motivated — traffic jam in the New Jersey town of Fort Lee, one big question has remained a mystery: how complicit was Governor Chris Christie? At first, Christie responded with derision, and then, when the involvement of some of his top aides became indisputable, he said he was “stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here.” Today, at the federal trial of two former public officials accused of conspiring to cause the jam, prosecutors and defense attorneys set out their own narratives of the closure. The adversaries all agreed about one thing: Christie knew.
It has been clear for some time that Bill Baroni and Bridget Kelly, the defendants, were intending to implicate Christie in the effort to pressure Fort Lee’s mayor, Mark Sokolich, into offering a reelection endorsement. What came as a greater surprise was the disclosure, tucked into a brief aside in prosecutor Vikas Khanna’s opening argument, that the government had evidence that Christie was aware of the closures as early as September 11, 2013 — day three of the four-day closure. Baroni and David Wildstein, two of Christie’s top appointees at the Port Authority, allegedly gave the governor an update while at a World Trade Center memorial service.
“The evidence will show that Baroni and Wildstein were so committed to their plan to punish Mayor Sokolich,” Khanna said, “that during those precious moments they had alone with the governor, they bragged about the fact that there were traffic problems in Fort Lee, and Mayor Sokolich was not getting his calls returned.” Despite desperate appeals about public safety, the closures would continue for another two days.
Pictures of the event show Christie sharing a laugh with Wildstein, who is now the principal witness for the prosecution. His relationship with the governor, which extends back to high school, is a central issue in the case, and Khanna acknowledged from the outset that it was Wildstein that was the mastermind of the closure scheme. “Mr. Wildstein, when he testifies, will make clear that he has engaged in politics all his life, and in doing so he has engaged in a lot of dirty tricks,” the prosecutor said. “Those dirty tricks, Baroni and Kelly knew all about [them], and they accepted him anyway.” He claimed that “the three of them worked hand in hand in order to punish Mayor Sokolich,” abusing their power as public officials in order to further Christie’s reelection campaign.
“Not only was that conduct mean spirited and vindictive,” Khanna said. “It was criminal.”
Left unanswered, at least for now, is the question of why prosecutors did not charge Christie if they had firm evidence of his complicity in a criminal conspiracy. (The governor, who spent yesterday responding to the apprehension of the Chelsea bombing suspect in Linden, did not offer any comment beyond his previous statements, which maintain that he does not recall discussing the traffic jam or Sokolich with Wildstein.) In his opening argument, Michael Critchley, Kelly’s defense attorney, sought to assign responsibility upward, projecting a large diagram called, “The Inner Circle,” with Christie at the center of it. “In a large sense, ladies and gentlemen, this case is not about traffic,” he said. “It’s about a presidential campaign.” Critchley claimed that Wildstein concocted the idea because he wanted to “shine in Chris Christie’s eyes,” and specifically hoped to win a position with the then-frontrunner’s 2016 campaign for president.
“He doesn’t just want be on the team,” Critchley said. “He wants to run Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina.”
Both defense attorneys signaled that they are planning to assault the credibility of Wildstein, a former campaign operative-turned anonymous political blogger who ended up — allegedly by his own description—as Christie’s “enforcer” inside the huge and fractious bistate Port Authority bureaucracy. They described what were called “red light-green light meetings,” where the governor allegedly ordered firings within the authority. The attorneys said that Wildstein had proudly called himself a “bully” and said that Christie had likened him to Winston Wolf, the character played by Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction. “Wildstein liked that, when the governor said, ‘You’re the cleaner,’” Critchley said. “He was Chris Christie’s cleaner. Those are words that didn’t come from David Wildstein’s mouth, those are words that came from Chris Christie’s mouth.”
“David Wildstein should be, based on this evidence, looked at like a ventriloquist’s doll sitting on Christopher J Christie’s lap,” said Michael Baldassare, Baroni’s attorney “Christie was David Wildstein’s world.”
Both of the defense attorneys sought to minimize their clients’ role within the Christie orbit, despite public evidence that they were quite influential. Critchley said that his client’s famously blunt email — “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” — was the product of workplace “banter,” and her credulous belief that Wildstein had a plan to study Fort Lee’s traffic patterns. (Left unexplained was another email exchange, in which she said felt bad for school children stuck in traffic — “I guess” — and Wildstein responded that they were the kids of Democratic voters. Kelly looked stricken to see it when prosecutors projected it on a large screen.) Baldassare said that Baroni had been distracted by arrangements for the September 11 ceremony at the time he gave approval for the closures, and made the surprising revelation that his client had once been a secret informant for FBI investigations into political corruption when he was in the state legislature — at a time when Christie was mounting prosecutions as U.S. attorney. Baldassare added that when Baroni lost his Port Authority job as a result of the scandal, Wildstein had written that he hoped his former friend “doesn’t jump off the bridge.”
“This David Wildstein is a vicious guy, he’s a bully — sorry judge, everyone — he’s an asshole,” Baldassare said, citing what he said were descriptive terms offered up by other government witnesses. “He has a twisted mind. He’s maniacal. I apologize again — David Wildstein is a miserable prick.” As examples the lawyer cited everything from long-ago political shenanigans — stealing Senator Frank Lautenberg’s coat before a debate, for instance, so he would have to go on television wearing something ill-fitting — to his walking out of the Port Authority with Baroni’s computer hard drive, which he handed over to the government eventually. Baldassare said that Wildstein had been “trading scalps for time” with prosecutors, and hinted that more revelations could still be to come.
“David Wildstein implicated so many people in this activity that it will boggle your mind,” he told the jury. “They’re people at the highest level of government in New Jersey and at the very, very top of the Port Authority.”
Baldassare said that when Wildstein exited his office at the Port, he left behind a set of snow boots, some family photos, and a lone file folder, conspicuously labeled, “Things I Don’t Care About.”