Bridgegate Plotter Has More Scalps for Trade

     NEWARK, N.J. (CN) — Testifying against the two Republican aides accused of shutting down lanes to the George Washington Bridge for political revenge, the government’s key witness did his best Monday to take more officials under the bus.
     David Wildstein is testifying as part of a plea deal after admitting last year that the September 2013 lane closures were intended to exact political retribution against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not supporting the re-election of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
     He says he had help from Christie’s former chief of staff, Bridget Ann Kelly, and his colleague at the Port Authority, William Baroni Jr.
     While Kelly and Baroni stand trial on several charges of fraud and misusing government resources, the list of unnamed co-conspirators continues to beguile case watchers.
     Prosecutors said on Day 1 that Wildstein would be contradicting Christie’s claims to have learned about the so-called Bridgegate plot after the lanes reopened.
     Defense attorneys that same day lambasted Wildstein as a liar who is trying to add scalps to his belt to reduce the possible 15-year prison sentence he faces.
     Wildstein today may have provided two more scalps: Bill Stepien, who served as Christie’s deputy chief of staff before taking over as campaign manager for Christie’s presidential campaign; and Port Authority Commissioner William “Pat” Schuber.
     Taking the stand for the second time in U.S. District Court on Monday, Wildstein testified that Stepien approved the lane closures and helped engineer the cover-up.
     “What story do we use?” Stepien asked, according to Wildstein’s testimony.
     The story that was settled on — and that Kelly and Baroni are sticking to — was that the lane closures were part of a legitimate traffic study.
     Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye wound up reopening the lanes by executive order on Sept. 13, much to the apparent dismay of the defendants.
     Foye testified last week that Baroni asked him at least twice, in person, to close the lanes again, allegedly calling it “important to Trenton.”
     Stepien, whom Christie fired for “poor judgment,” has maintained his innocence as well but took heat in the early days of the controversy for having called Sokolich an “idiot.”
     As for Schuber, a fellow Christie appointee to the Port Authority, Wildstein said they met a Bergen County diner so Wildstein could offer a heads up about the planned lane shutdowns.
     Wildstein told Schuber, according to his testimony, that “in a couple weeks there was going to be significant traffic” in Fort Lee, and that this was “aimed at Mr. Sokolich.”
     Schuber responded that he understood, Wildstein said.
     As for why he informed Schuber of the political stunt, Wildstein noted that Schuber was a “loyal member” of the Christie circle.
     Reached after proceedings Monday, Schuber’s attorney, Sal Alfano, said his client “categorically denies any discussion about lane closures took place with Mr. Wildstein.”
     Alfano declined to comment further regarding Wildstein’s relationship, professional or otherwise, with Schuber.
     A spokesman for Port Authority cited a policy of not commenting on any allegations coming out of the trial.
     “The Port Authority is committed to reviewing any allegations made against any agency employee or official during the course of the ongoing trial related to the George Washington Bridge lane closings, and announcing any potential actions taken after the trial ends. At this time, however, we will not comment on specific allegations made during testimony about a respected commissioner.”
     Christie himself has prior denied knowledge of the plan.
     The idea for using the George Washington Bridge as a political weapon came to Wildstein in 2011, he told the court, when he visited Fort Lee and observed the cones cordoning off three lanes.
     Wildstein said he thought “this could be a potential leverage point with Mr. Sokolich down the road.”
     An opportunity presented itself in August 2013, he said, when Fort Lee’s 2007 agreement with the Port Authority for snow removal was up for renewal. The deal also included the city’s three unofficial G.W. Bridge lanes.
     In an email discussing the matter, Kelly replied cryptically that “it will not snow until at least November,” Wildstein said.
     “Unless Halloween comes before that,” Wildstein shot back.
     Though hardly the sinister admission of a Bond villain, the correspondence could represent a rough plan to put Fort Lee’s agreement on hold until after Christie’s November re-election.
     The damage could have been worse, Wildstein told jurors Monday. After querying Port Authority engineers about safety issues, Wildstein said he abandoned initial plans to shut down all three of Fort Lee’s lanes leading onto the bridge. Wildstein said he and Kelly settled for a two-lane closure, instead of all three of Fort Lee’s lanes, to minimize the risk of car collisions.
     The court on Monday also heard about Port Authority’s process of providing funding to local mayors.
     Wildstein said the grants, favors for mayors and the like are first approved by the political shop — meaning himself, Baroni and Christie’s office — and then the policy people.
     The prosecution may wrap its questioning of Baroni today, handing the witness over what could be another four days of cross-examination by Baroni and Kelly’s defense teams.
     At opening arguments, Baroni’s attorney said part of Wildstein’s job was to keep an eye on Baroni, his boss, because Christie viewed him as “Republican light.”
     Both prosecutors and defense attorneys in the case have painted Wildstein as an unsavory political operative who entered game of politics at 12 years old.
     According to a recent profile in New York magazine, Wildstein was accused by one of his high school teachers of “political manipulation” during a failed run for a school board seat.
     Wildstein began running the political website PoliticsNJ.com under the pseudonym Wally Edge, a New Jersey governor famous for hobnobbing with Atlantic City’s Enoch “Nucky” Johnson.
     The website would later be purchased by Jared Kushner, who is Donald Trump’s son-in-law and would in 2009 direct Wildstein to go after Christie during his first run for governor.
     Though Christie is now a surrogate for the Republican presidential candidate, the governor is said to have gotten on Kushner’s bad side by prosecuting the media mogul’s father.
     Baroni and Christie both knew Wildstein posed as “Wally Edge” on the political blog, defense attorneys have told the court.
     Later, while Wildstein worked with Baroni at the Port Authority, they used a secret language that included the verb “to Wally,” which meant to research something.
     Another oft-quoted code by the pair was the “one-constituent rule,” which meant taking actions designed to help one person: Christie. Prosecutors say Baroni followed that rule to a T, eventually “blessing” Wildstein’s plan to shut down Fort Lee’s bridge lanes.
     Wildstein testified that he also developed a relatively close relationship with Kelly, whom he viewed at the time as “my boss” because of her role in the Christie administration. The two traded personal emails, even once joking about who was crazier.
     Emails between Kelly and Wildstein would become key evidence in the Bridgegate trial. The day after Sokolich turned down the many overtures by Christie staffers to endorse the Republican governor in his reelection bid, Kelly emailed Wildstein: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
     Defense attorneys for Kelly and Baroni now claim Wildstein is manipulating the system once again, this time to win probation and live comfortably in his home in Florida that he purchased three months after pleading guilty to his role in Bridgegate.

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