NEWARK, N.J. (CN) — Two former allies of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are on trial for politically engineered lane closures that caused massive traffic in September 2013. As the trial unfolded these past six weeks, however, many others have had to wrangle with damaging witness testimony.
In powerful company beside Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, one name that has come up frequently is Bill Stepien.
Now an adviser to the presidential campaign of Republican nominee Donald Trump, Stepien had been a rising star in the New Jersey GOP and Christie's campaign manager at the time of the lane closures.
That fall, Christie had been campaigning for a second term as governor, and witnesses have described his campaign as a ruthless one, relishing in opportunities to exact revenge on the governor's political opponents.
On Sept. 9, 2013 — shortly after Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich declined to give Christie an endorsement — the heavily Democratic city lost two of its three reserved lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge. The lane closures lasted four days, snarling commuters, emergency vehicles and school buses in gridlock traffic.
Christie himself has never been indicted, but prosecutors did bring charges against his senior staffer, Bridget Anne Kelly, as well as David Wildstein and Bill Baroni Jr., both of whom Christie appointed to the public agency that runs the bridge, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Though the government has a list of unindicted co-conspirators connected to the Bridgegate trial, the Third Circuit opted last month to keep these names sealed.
After pleading guilty last year, Wildstein became the star among more than 300 names on the prosecution's list of possible witnesses. His testimony left few unscathed — whether once his crony or enemy at the governor's office and at the Port Authority.
Christie, Cuomo and Stepien are among the vast majority of names never called to the stand, though implicated in many a witness's testimony. The defense has rested, and prosecutors are set to begin summations Friday against Kelly and Baroni. U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton dismissed the jury Thursday when a lengthy sidebar on a "legal issue" required more time to resolve.
In an email to Courthouse News, Stepien's attorney Kevin Marino emphasized that neither the government nor defense asked Stepien to testify, "and I am unaware of any allegation that he did anything during the lane closures."
Marino has been reported, however, as condemning the "sad and self-serving accusations" Wildstein made against his client.
Late last month, Wildstein testified about having told Stepien in August 2013 that Kelly signed off on closing Fort Lee's lanes.
As Wildstein said on the witness stand, Stepien wanted to know "what story do we use?"
In the immediate aftermath of, and mounting furor over, the bridge scandal, Wildstein was one of several Port Authority officials who blamed the lane closures on a traffic study. That explanation is now labeled a cover-up.
Wildstein and Stepien's professional relationship stretches back to at least 2000, when both worked on the failed U.S. Senate run of Bob Franks, then a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.