Bridgegate Cover-Up Had Cuomo’s Backing, Star Witness for U.S. Prosecutors Says

     NEWARK, N.J. (CN) — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office had a hand in the cover-up story for New Jersey’s 2013 politically engineered traffic jam, a convicted Republican operative testified Tuesday.
     After the closure of two lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge snarled New Jersey traffic for four days in September 2013, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey put out a press release that blamed a traffic study for the congestion.
     Though Port Auhority Executive Director Pat Foye testified last month that this explanation was not the truth, the Cuomo appointee gave little explanation as to why he signed off on a lie.
     This morning, jurors in the federal Bridgegate trial heard that Foye got word from Albany to “lay off” of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
     David Wildstein made the blockbuster allegation in his return to the stand after a three-day weekend courtesy of Rosh Hashanah.
     The former Christie operative at the Port Authority has said the lane closures were targeted at the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie’s re-election.
     Following a guilty plea last year, Wildstein is the government’s star witness against his accused co-conspirators: Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Ann Kelly, and Bill Baroni, a fellow Christie ally at the Port Authority.
     Throughout proceedings, tension between New Jersey and New York sides of the Port Authority has been likened to the rival gangs of “West Side Story,” the Sharks and the Jets.
     Wildstein said Baroni was preparing for a November 2013 appearance before the New Jersey Legislature when the Port Authority put together the “traffic-study” report for Foye’s approval.
     The message was, according to Wildstein’s testimony, that “the Port Authority would take responsibility for a failure of communications, a mea culpa … so that the questions about the lane closures would go away.”
     Wildstein said Port Authority chair David Samson had told him that Foye would be told not to accept invitation to testify before New Jersey legislators.
     To Wildstein’s knowledge, Christie and Cuomo’s offices had been in discussion.
     Somebody called Albany “to call Pat Foye off,” Wildstein said he heard from Christie’s chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd.
     Cuomo’s office has not returned a telephone call seeking comment on the testimony, but the New York Daily News quoted his representative as dismissive. “Anyone can say anything, especially a convicted felon spinning a tale, but it’s just false and delusional,” the spokesperson said.
     While Cuomo and Christie have both avoided prosecution, corruption allegations have dogged the governors of late.
     Court revelations have done little to dispel Cuomo’s reputation as “The Albany Machiavelli,” a nickname that New York Magazine tagged the Italian-American politician with three years ago.
     Wildstein said the implication was that O’Dowd hashed out the agreement with his counterpart in Cuomo’s office. Cuomo’s chief of staff was John Blasto from January 2013 to January 2014.
     Cross-examining Wildstein today, Kelly’s defense attorney Michael Critchley asked whether “Christie wanted Pay Foye fired.”
     “Christie was not a fan of Pat Foye,” Wildstein answered.
     Foye had achieved hero status in September after reopening the lanes via executive order, and Wildstein admitted today that he did not have a good relationship with theman.
     Wildstein said he believed the traffic study — backed by Foye after pressure from Albany — “would put an end to this issue.”
     Focus on the scandal continued to mount in December, however, and Wildstein said he reached out to Christie’s spokesman, Michael Drewniak,
     When they met for dinner Dec. 4 at Steakhouse 85, a restaurant in New Brunswick, Wildstein allegedly told Drewniak that the story was getting out of control and that there were others involved from Christie’s office in the lane-closure decision.
     The Port Authority asked Wildstein to resign two days later.
     “I thought it was a little strange,” Wildstein said today, that he was forced out after informing Drewniak that Christie staffers had knowledge of the lane closures and the ensuing cover-up.
     Wildstein said he told Drewniak: “The governor did not tell me to stop it,” that Christie knew, that Kelly knew and that Christie’s then-campaign manager, Bill Stepien, knew.
     Critchley baited the witness to discuss what Christie was thinking, but Wildstein would not commit.
     “I’m not saying he was approving, but it certainly seemed like he liked the idea,” Wildstein said of the New Jersey governor.
     Though Critchley kept using the word “approval” in discussing Christie, Wildstein would only use “approving” for his description of the governor’s reaction.
     “I thought the governor was pleased by it,” Wildstein said.
     Compounding the timing of Wildstein’s resignation, the witness has said he offered from the beginning to shoulder blame for the lane closures.
     Wildstein said every time he offered to resign, Christie staffers assured him it was not necessary.
     But once Christie’s name was mentioned, he said, it took just two days for things to change.
     “Boom you’re gone,” said Critchley.
     Around that time in December, Christie’s chief political strategist Mike DuHaime said publicly that neither he nor Christie were aware when the lanes were closed that it was done for political retribution.
     Wildstein said his December meeting with DuHaime contradicted this.
     “According to you, he lied,” asked Critchley.
     “Yes, he did,” Wildstein replied, saying both DuHaime and Christie knew.
     Wildstein said Christie continued to praise him after his resignation, giving glowing statements about Wildstein’s performance in a Dec. 6 press release.
     Around the time that the Port Authority forced Wildstein, Wildstein said he went to Christie’s chief counsel Charles McKenna.
     McKenna told Wildstein, according to the witness’s testimony, that a lot of changes were coming to the Port Authority.
     Wildstein said he took this to mean that Foye would be fired too.
     While Foye remains in his post at the Port Authority, however, Christie’s connection to the lane closures cost the rising Republican star his candidacy in the Republican presidential primaries
     Wildstein said he was still under the impression that he was on still Christie’s team, even after his resignation.
     On Dec. 8, as shown to the jury today, Christie’s adviser DuHaime texted Wildstein.
     “If you see a blocked call today or tomorrow, answer it,” the message read.
     Wildstein said the message implied that Christie was going to call to tell him that he was still a member of his team.
     At the time, Wildstein said he believed “Governor Christie felt that I was good at what I did.”
     “These days I’m not so sure,” the witness added, unprompted.
     Testimony began this morning with Critchley showing a picture from 2011 of Wildstein and Christie, standing with Baroni and others in the state house building in Trenton.
     They were gathered in the third-floor rotunda, looking at portrait in of Wally Edge, a former governor of New Jersey who had been famous for hobnobbing with Atlantic City’s Enoch “Nucky” Johnson.
     Earlier in the trial, the jury leaned that Wildstein used Wally Edge as his pseudonym for his old political website PoliticsNJ.com.
     Christie wound up moving the portrait of Edge to his outer office on the first floor.
     Critchley asked Wildstein, “was that in honor of you?”
     Wildstein said he didn’t recall.
     Previous testimony showed that things soured for Wildstein in January and that he was told to leave the Port Authority earlier that he had expected.
     The revelations about Cuomo today come two weeks after federal prosecutors in Manhattan lobbed corruption charges at the governor’s former “right-hand man” Joseph Percoco and several of his major donors. The criminal complaint shows Cuomo’s “gatekeeper” describing bribe payments as “zitti.”
     That line, allegedly uttered by Percoco, was a reference to “The Sopronos,” set in the state of Christie’s New Jersey.
     Wildstein favored comparisons to another mobster, Meyer Lansky, prior testimony showed.
     Though the court has adjourned every day for the past two weeks at 2:30, today’s proceedings mark the start of a longer schedule to keep the trial on track.
     Court will adjourn at 3:30 for the rest of the week, with no proceedings on Oct. 10 and 12 for Columbus Day and Yom Kippur.
     On Oct. 12, court will begin letting out every day at 4:30.
     Kelly and Baroni are charged with fraud and misuse of government resources.
     One of the busiest spans in the world, the George Washington Bridge connects New Jersey to New York City.


     Courthouse News reporter Adam Klasfeld contributed reporting on this story from New York.

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