Bridgegate Was No Shock for Chris Christie, Prosecutors Tell Jury

     NEWARK, N.J. (CN) — Though not in court for the start of trial on the George Washington Bridge lane closures, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was a dominating presence Monday at opening arguments.
     For the first time this morning, the government said Christie knew that the shutdown of two lanes into the heavily trafficked bridge was “planned political revenge” against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, for not endorsing Christie in the gubernatorial race.
     Christie is not on trial, but his former chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, is.
     The prosecution has made much of emails Kelly sent before the lane closures snarled traffic on the George Washington Bridge for five days in September 2013.
     “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” she said in one.
     Aside from Kelly’s own words, the government’s key witness for the trial is David Wildstein, a former director of interstate capital with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
     During a 9/11 memorial event in the midst of the lane shutdown, Wildstein “bragged” to Christie about the plots effects on Fort Lee, U.S. Attorney Vikas Khanna told jurors today.
     “Evidence may show that others could have, should have, perhaps knew” about the planned shutdown before it occurred, Khanna added.
     Wildtstein will also be testifying in the coming weeks against Kelly’s co-defendant, William Baroni Jr., a former Port Authority deputy executive director charged with concocting a phony traffic study to cover up the cause of the lane closures.
     Christie has maintained that he knew nothing about the shutdown until it had already been reported in the press. He has also denied involvement in planning the shutdown.
     Against these denials, however, Baroni’s defense team uncovered evidence last month that says otherwise.
     “He lied,” one former staffer said of Christie in December 2013, texting with a colleague as the Republican governor distanced himself from the scandal at a press conference.
     “And if emails are found with the subpoena or ccfg emails are uncovered in discovery if it comes to that it could be bad,” the text continued, abbreviating the name of Christie’s re-election campaign.
     An attorney for the Christie staffer on trial told the jury today that the governor’s shadow over the case is no accident.
     “They went hunting for whales and settled for a minnow,” said Michael Critchley, who represents Christie’s former chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly.
     The attorney cast Wildstein as a political junky, desperate to get on Christie’s radar so that the rising Republican star would tap him for future presidential campaigns.
     Baroni’s attorney Michael Baldassare touched on these themes as well, saying the GOP soldier was perfect fit for Christie who wanted to keep a watchful eye on Baroni at the Port Authority.
     Having voted for marriage equality and other issues unpalatable to a Donald Trump surrogate, Baroni was considered by Christie to be “Republican light.” Baldassare said.
     For Christie, Wildstein was a “fixer,” his “Mr. Wolf,” the attorney added, using a reference to the character played by Harvey Keitel in “Pulp Fiction.”
     Baldassare meanwhile called Wildstein a “liar,” and a “ventriloquist doll” on Christie’s lap.
     “When David Wildstein spoke, Gov. Chris Christie’s voice came out and everybody knew it,” said Baldassare , an attorney with the firm Baldassare & Mara.
     Before making his way into politics, Wildstein was a carpet salesman. Now facing up to 15 years in prison for the Bridgegate scandal, he is trading scalps to get his time reduced, Baldassare said.
     “A head was needed, and David Wildstein’s simply wasn’t enough,” Baldassere told the jury.
     Hinting at plans to argue that Christie was directly involved in the lane closures, Baldassere said Wildstein’s testimony implicates people “at the highest levels of the government in New Jersey and at the very, very top of the Port Authority.”
     Khanna agreed that Wildstein was “the one who came up with the idea” for the lane shutdown. But he said “Baroni blessed it.”
     Baldassare spent much of his argument this morning expanding on the “dirty tricks” that the prosecution said Wildstein was accustomed to employing as a political animal.
     “The government made a deal with the devil and they’re stuck with him,” the attorney said.
     If prosecutors plan to get reliable testimony from Wildstein, they have their work cut out for them, Baldassere added, noting that the government had to prep this particular witness 14 times just for the grand jury.
     Attorney Critchley also slammed Wildstein as a “fraudster” who has made a “scapegoat” of Kelly.
     Critchley noted that his client, a mother of four, had little input on policy decisions and was primarily a “scheduler” for Christie’s office, helping in such tasks as arranging food for the governor’s box at MetLife Stadium for Giants or Jets games.
     “Let’s not elevate her to some grandiose position,” Critchley told the jury.
     Critchley also downplayed the electronic evidence against client. In one 2013 text message to Wildstein in 2013, Kelly had little sympathy for the schoolchildren getting stuck in the bridge traffic.
     “Is it wrong that I’m smiling,” Kelly had asked.
     Critchley chalked up the text to “joking banter” that Kelly now regrets.
     Wildstein had returned Kelly’s volley, the messages showed. “These are the children of Buono voters,” Wildstein wrote, referring to Democrat Barbara Buono who had lost the gubernatorial race to Christie in 2013.
     There is a disparaging remark about Mayor Sokolich’s Croation heritage in the evidence as well. “It will be a tough November for this little Serbian,” Wildstein wrote.
     Sokolich is expected to testify over the next month, as is Fort Lee’s police chief.
     A more damning bit of evidence against Baroni includes Wildstein’s text that an official at the Port Authority was “helping us to retaliate.”
     While Baroni told New Jersey legislators that the shutdown was part of a Port Authority traffic study, Port Authority officials have admitted the traffic study was a retroactive excuse for the shutdown.
     Baldassare and Critchley both spent a portion of their arguments today defending the study as “legitimate.”
     Critchley said the traffic study focused on how traffic would “balance out” if the lanes unofficially designated for Fort Lee traffic were given over to general commuter traffic.
     As for the repeated calls by Fort Lee’s mayor pleading for help, Baldassere said Baroni could not answer them because it would mess up the traffic study.
     U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton is presiding over the case, which is expected to take six to eight weeks. Five men and seven women serve on the jury.

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