This morning, the jurors who will decide the fate of two former New Jersey public officials charged with deliberately jamming the streets approaching the George Washington Bridge filed quietly into Judge Susan Wigenton’s courtroom. The gallery was packed and buzzing in anticipation of closing arguments. For the last six weeks, the jury had listened impassively — and sometimes a bit drowsily — as an array of current and former aides to Governor Chris Christie have described a hard-to-fathom political conspiracy. Prosecutors laid out how the shadowy operative David Wildstein — their star witness — had closed toll lanes to the bridge in order to exact revenge on a recalcitrant Democratic mayor. A pair of defense attorneys made a compelling case that their clients were merely pawns of a bullying king, demonstrating the staggering arrogance and pettiness of a politician who once had credible designs on the White House.
It was an entertaining show, but after all the theatrics, the two sides were preparing to argue a narrower legal question: Did Bill Baroni, formerly New Jersey’s top staff member at the Port Authority, and Bridget Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, misuse government resources by participating in Wildstein’s scheme?
Then Wigenton entered the courtroom, briskly announced that an unspecified “legal issue” had arisen, and sent the jury and everyone else home for the day.
Outside the courtroom, the attorneys involved in the case were closemouthed about the mysterious delay; even Michael Critchley, Kelly’s usually voluble lawyer, offered little beyond the assurance that it was not a “big issue.” Offered an unexpected break, the reporters covering the case lingered in the hallway, taking stock at the end of a trial that featured — unusually — several days of testimony by both of the accused.
The consensus among courtroom observers seems to be that Kelly, the petite mother of four who allegedly ordered the closures, came off sympathetically, while Baroni, the square-jawed politico who was reputedly nicknamed “Phony Baroni” by colleagues when he served in the State Senate, didn’t appear as credible. No one needed to argue, though, about who came off looking the worst. “Mr. Christie remained the offstage villain, the Mephistopheles of Trenton,” the Times wrote in a sulfurous editorial this morning, “but it was impossible for even casual trial observers not to discern, from witness after witness, the evident viciousness and grubbiness of the governor and his administration.”
Three years ago, when the bridge-closing conspiracy first came to light, investigators asked the time-honored question: What did Governor Christie know, and when did he know it? More than a month of testimony in the case has offered ample evidence that the most plausible answers to those questions are: everything and early. Under oath, some of Christie’s closest advisers were forced to admit that the governor lied about what he knew — baldly, and repeatedly. But it was Kelly, the defendant, who offered perhaps the most damning account. Over several days of sometimes teary testimony, she claimed that the governor — a boss she said “petrified” her and even once hurled a water bottle at her in fury — was fully aware of Wildstein’s activities, until he had what Kelly delicately called a “memory issue.” While Christie has denied the allegations, and Kelly is trying to save herself from prison, her story had a convincing ring.
If Kelly is telling the truth about Christie’s actions — and prosecutors didn’t challenge that part of her account during cross-examination — a new timeline of the bridge scandal emerges, one that places Chris Christie at the center of the conspiracy from the outset. Her account begins on August 12, 2013, when she received an email from Wildstein. It read: “I have an issue to discuss with you, extraordinarily weird even by my standards.”
Wildstein, formerly a muckraking political blogger who went by the pseudonym Wally Edge, played a sort of G. Gordon Liddy role within the Christie administration, and had a long-standing relationship to the governor — his former high-school classmate — and his inner-circle political advisers. According to Baroni, Christie personally installed Wildstein to do his dirty work at the Port Authority. Other witnesses said that it was Baroni, a close friend of Wildstein’s, who brought him in — but at any rate, they were all tight. The trial has revealed that Christie affectionately called Wildstein by his old screen name, “Wally,” and likened him to the cleaner played by Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction. So, when Wildstein told Kelly he had an idea for the governor, she said she knew to listen.
Kelly claims Wildstein explained on the phone that he was planning to do a traffic study involving the closure of lanes that allowed local motorists traveling through the town of Fort Lee to directly access the George Washington Bridge. Closing the lanes, she says Wildstein explained, would ease congestion for motorists coming over the regular highway approach, while creating traffic problems in Fort Lee. She claims he told her he had already received approval for the idea from Bill Stepien, the Christie campaign manager, and he asked her to run it by Christie himself for final approval.
Kelly testified that she immediately took the proposal to Christie, telling him that Wildstein had proposed the idea of holding an elaborate campaign event where the governor would be hailed as a champion of New Jersey commuters. “That’s typical Wally,” she said the governor said, approvingly. She claimed he then asked her whether the administration had a good relationship with Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich. Emails show that Kelly discussed the issue with her subordinates, and determined that Sokolich would not be endorsing Christie. Kelly claimed that she also briefed Christie’s chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd. Early the following morning, August 13, she dashed off an email to Wildstein: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Wildstein testified that he spent the next few weeks meticulously putting the plan in motion, scheduling the lane shutdown for September 9, the first day of school, to maximize chaos. Two days later, he and Baroni saw Christie at a September 11 memorial service, where Wildstein says they joked with the governor about the pain they were causing Sokolich. (Baroni denied this on the stand.) Kelly, however, testified that after Christie returned to Trenton from the memorial service, he stopped by her office to discuss the traffic jam, telling her it was Wildstein’s job to handle it.
Kelly claimed that she and the governor discussed the traffic jam a third time on September 12, while they were traveling to the Jersey shore to oversee the response to a fire. By this time, Sokolich was loudly complaining about the jam, and receiving no response from Baroni — whom Wildstein instructed to maintain “radio silence.” Kelly said she informed the governor that Sokolich was “talking about government retribution.” She claimed that Christie again instructed her to leave the matter to Wildstein. The closures continued into the following day, when the Port Authority’s executive director, a New York appointee, furiously put an end to them after learning about them from press inquiries.
Now, there are some less-than-believable elements to this account, chief among them Kelly’s contention that she didn’t know the true motives behind the “traffic study.” (Baroni claimed similar ignorance on the stand, perhaps even less plausibly, but there are no incriminating emails to contradict his story.) The trial has amply demonstrated that Wildstein was known to be a voracious political animal, and Kelly has testified to witnessing many examples of Christie’s bullying behavior. The fact that she had a romantic relationship with Stepien — who, strangely, has not been called to testify by either side at the trial — would suggest that, at the least, she had a back channel to communicate with the campaign manager, who allegedly was aware of the revenge scheme from the beginning.
What does seem quite convincing, however, is Kelly’s claim that she was in no position to order around Wildstein, who had the esteem of the governor. She testified that she merely kept Christie and other members of his inner circle closely informed. Her account of the scandal’s progression was powerful, in part because it appeared to lay out a rational chain of events. In it, every conversation you imagine must have happened did, in fact, happen.
Over the course of the fall of 2013, more and more advisers to Christie became aware of Wildstein’s scheme and its potential implications, and press coverage mounted, driven in part by political infighting between the New York and New Jersey factions of the Port Authority staff. As late as December, though, Christie still thought he could control the scandal by denying everything and working out a deal with New York governor Andrew Cuomo. Kelly described a December 11 conference call in which Christie said he had told Cuomo to instruct his appointees at the Port Authority to “back the fuck off.” (Both governors would later deny the deal, but several witnesses have now testified that it did occur.) Then, in December, subpoenas started to arrive, and the “memory issues” began.
The key day in the timeline of the cover-up, according to the case laid out by the defense, was December 13, 2013. That morning, Christie held a meeting where he demanded to know whether any of his senior staff had been involved in the scheme, declaring — in what one witness described as a “thunderous” voice — that “confessionals are open.” Kelly testified that she was amazed, since Christie was aware of Wildstein’s plan from the beginning. “It seemed there was an alternate universe going on,” she said. Christie’s top political adviser, Mike DuHaime, testified that even as Christie played the inquisitor for his staff, he was frantically calling Wildstein and Stepien, trying to determine who knew what. In one of these conversations, DuHaime said, Wildstein disclosed that he had texts and email messages that showed Kelly had given a go-ahead. DuHaime said he called Christie directly and spoke to him, just before he took the podium at a press conference, informing him that Kelly and Stepien were involved.
Christie then went to the podium and said: “I’ve made it very clear to everybody on my senior staff that if anyone had any knowledge about this that they needed to come forward to me and tell me about it, and they’ve all assured me that they don’t.” The governor said Stepien specifically had “assured me the same thing.”
“He just flat out lied,” an aide to Kelly texted another administration official as they watched the press conference. (The message was produced at trial.)
Wildstein was irate, DuHaime testified, when they talked the following day. “He was angry that other people were shirking their responsibility and he was being left to take responsibility for this on his own,” the political consultant said. The die was cast. Within a week, the mastermind would turn over everything he had in his email account to a legislative committee that was investigating the lane closures. Kelly, meanwhile, was frantically deleting her own emails and text messages — too late — while desperately trying to talk to Christie and O’Dowd, the chief of staff, to remind them of their previous conversations, to no avail. The following month, when the messages came out, Kelly was abruptly fired, and Christie gave another press conference, saying: “I am stunned by the abject stupidity that was shown here.” He hired Randy Mastro, an attorney who formerly served mayor Rudolph Giuliani, to conduct a $10 million internal investigation that exonerated Christie, placing most of the blame on Wildstein and Kelly.
“Do you know what the word scapegoat is?” Michael Critchley asked his client on Monday, near the conclusion of Kelly’s direct examination.
In his opening argument, Critchley, a pugnacious combatant, displayed a large chart entitled the “inner circle,” with Chris Christie at the center, and promised to show how the bridge scandal was the work of a “coterie of cowards — cowards who are addicted to power.” He has succeeded in that objective, and it seems likely that Christie’s political career and public reputation will never recover. Whether the defense has done enough to win an acquittal for Baroni and Kelly, though, remains a question for another day.