Bridge Trial Leaves Few Clean From New Jersey Political Scene

     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.
     Baroni worked on the Franks campaign as well, as did Mike DuHaime, yet another future Bridgegate witness who now works on the Trump campaign for which Christie is a surrogate.
     After Franks lost, Stepien worked for DuHaime’s political consulting firm and on Baroni’s 2002 campaign for the New Jersey Assembly.
     Christie was a U.S. attorney running for governor in 2009 when he tapped DuHaime as his chief political strategist. DuHaime would later deny involvement in the 2013 bridge scandal, telling the press in December of that year that neither he nor the governor knew the lanes were shutdown for political retribution.
     Wildstein called this out as a lie in his testimony.
     Christie cut ties with Stepien on Jan. 9, 2014, after the press reported on emails Christie’s allies had sent regarding the lane shutdown.
     One revealed that Stepien had called Sokolich an “idiot” in an email to Wildstein. Though Christie had tapped Stepien just two days earlier to head up the New Jersey GOP, the governor told the press on Jan. 9 that he had “lost faith” in Stepien’s judgment. Christie fired Kelly that same day.
     Gibson Dunn & Crutcher released audit Christie had commissioned on the scandal later that year.
     Largely exonerating Stepien, the law firm’s report says Christie’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs was not political in nature under Stepien’s watch from 2010 through the first half of 2013.
     The report says the IGA became politicized only after Kelly succeeded Stepien as head of agency in 2013. Stepien left the IGA that year to head up the campaign for Christie’s re-election.
     Despite the generally positive account of his client, Marino greeted the law firm’s findings with a demand for lead author Randy Mastro to retract “false and misleading statements,” such as that Stepien misled Christie about the lane closures.
     Various aspects of the trial meanwhile contradict the report’s findings about Stepien’s IGA work.
     Wildstein testified about having kept Stepien apprised of newly hired public officials at the Port Authority, particularly in the agency’s police department, so that IGA could later target these individuals to endorse Christie.
     Emails entered into evidence also show Stepien advising staffers at IGA to “lose” the number of Freeholder John Curley, and telling Kelly to “ice” Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop and other public officials.
     As laid out for the jury, putting someone on “ice” in the Christie administration was a euphemism for freezing them out of communications with the governor after they incurred his wrath for various reasons.
     Kelly had tearfully testified this week about a point in summer 2013 when Christie had grown angry with Fulop, the Jersey City mayor, and shouted at her that “no one is entitled to a fucking meeting.”
     Emails entered into evidence during the trial Tuesday show that Stepien was pleased after Kelly canceled a planned round of meetings with Fulop, whom Stepien had previously called a snake.
     “This is perfect,” Stepien wrote. “It will send a good message to this guy.”
     Stepien’s attorney at Marino, Tortorella & Boyle balked at the amount of time devoted at trial to Christie’s IGA.
     “It sounds as though this case, which charged the defendants with closing bridge access lanes to punish a mayor for not endorsing the governor, morphed into a decidedly non-criminal case about a governor canceling a day of meetings with a non-endorsing mayor,” attorney Marino wrote in an email. “It is hard for me to understand how what was proven at trial was a crime, or to square that metamorphosis in the prosecution’s theory of the case with any sense of fundamental fairness or due process, but there you are.”
     The Chatham-based lawyer has been a recurring face in the audience for several days of testimony in the Bridgegate trial.
     About a month before opening arguments, Marino spoke out when a Baroni defense motion quoted text messages from Christie staffer Christina Renna that brought into question Stepien’s knowledge of the bridge scandal.
     Dated Dec. 13, 2013, the text shows Renna writing to a colleague about Stepien smack in the middle of a Christie press conference on the lane shutdown.
     “He just flat out lied about senior staff and Stepien not being involved,” Renna wrote, meaning Christie.
     Stepien’s lawyer Marino told reporters at the time that any suggestion of Stepien’s involvement in the lane conspiracy was “categorically false and irresponsible.”
     Gibson Dunn’s report revealed that Stepien and Kelly became linked romantically in April 2013.
     Supposedly the relationship lasted only a few months, but Kelly still speaks of Stepien in relatively glowing terms.
     During her testimony she called him alternatively her mentor and her resource when she took over his position at IGA. She had referred to Stepien as “a political animal” and as brilliant. “He was someone who I learned a lot from,” Kelly told the jury Tuesday.
     Perhaps most tellingly, Kelly said that she and Stepien “had the same mindset” on certain topics. In one April 2013 email to Stepien, when she learned he was leaving to join Christie’s campaign, Kelly wrote: “When you only like one other person in the building, and that is the only other person who thinks the way you do … it’ll be a big change.”
     Despite claiming similarities with Stepien, however, Kelly knew she never enjoyed his closeness with Christie.
     “He had a much different relationship with the governor than I,” she told the court. “I am not Bill Stepien.”

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