Bridge Gridlock Pleased Christie, Jury Hears

     NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Upon hearing that his appointee had engineered a traffic jam for political reasons, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appeared happy about it, the governor’s former ally testified Tuesday in the scandal that helped destroy Christie’s White House ambitions.
     The admission Tuesday from David Wildstein, a former executive at the agency that oversees New York-area bridges and tunnels, fulfils a long-awaited promise of the so-called Bridgegate trial.
     At opening arguments last week, federal prosecutors said Wildstein would be contradicting Christie’s claims that he was ignorant of the plot when it was going on.
     On Tuesday, the Republican governor remained stalwart. “All kinds of stuff is going on up in a courtroom in Newark,” Christie said. “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.”
     Wildstein has been testifying since Friday for the prosecution at the trial of two former Christie allies he says helped him conceive and carry out the scheme in September 2013.
     As part of a guilty plea last year, Wildstein said the plot was meant to get back at Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich because the Democrat was not supporting the Republican Christie’s re-election campaign.
     Fort Lee has three unofficial lanes leading on to the George Washington Bridge, connecting New Jersey with New York City, and Wildstein’s efforts shut down two of those lanes for four days, causing massive gridlock.
     Christie, whose Republican presidential ambitions were badly damaged by the scandal, has denied knowing about the plot at the time and has not been charged with a crime.
     Wildstein testified he told Christie about the traffic in Fort Lee three days in, during a Sept. 11 memorial event.
     The testimony also implicates Bill Baroni, Wildstein’s former colleague at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who is on trial for fraud and misusing government resources.
     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’s testimony.
     The government has already shown that Wildstein used the pseudonym “Wally Edge” while publishing a New Jersey politics website.
     Jurors on Tuesday were shown several pictures from Sept. 11, 2013 — the third day of the lane closures — showing Baroni, Wildstein and Christie talking.
     Baroni is on trial with Bridget Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff.
     Wildstein said during the planning of the scheme, Kelly had said the governor was “going to love it.”
     Saying they were proud of what they had done, Wildstein claimed that he and Baroni agreed to tell Christie at the 9/11 event when they spoke the night before.     
     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.
     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 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.
     Associated Press writer Michael Catalini in Trenton contributed to this story.

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