NEWARK, N.J. (CN) — Gov. Chris Christie's office did not give much thought to a messy traffic jam caused by New Jersey lane closures in fall 2013, his former chief counsel testified Thursday, saying nothing about it had seemed "nefarious" at the time.
Prosecutors contend that the four-day lane shutdown was intended as political retribution against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, who had disappointed the Christie camp by revealing he would not be supporting the governor's re-election. Traffic around the George Washington Bridge backed up for hours in Fort Lee during the September lane closures, wreaking havoc on the small community.
Though the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Christie administration explained away the lane closures at the time, the traffic study they blamed proved to be nothing more than a cover story.
A trial over the plot has been building for weeks at the Newark federal courthouse. Fifteen miles away meanwhile a Bergen County judge approved a criminal summons today in a citizen's complaint against Christie, finding probable cause as to the governor's role in the scandal.
The governor's potential indictment made little splash in at the federal trial Thursday where prosecutors called to the stand Charles McKenna, who served as Christie's chief counsel until 2014.
McKenna testified that he had been told by Christie's press secretary, Mike Drewniak, in November 2013 that one of the senior staff had emails regarding the lane closures.
"There was nothing nefarious about a traffic study," McKenna testified.
Despite growing media attention, McKenna said it never dawned on him to investigate the issue further.
"It wasn't something we worried about every day," said McKenna, a former prosecutor. "The world changed on January 8th."
On that date, Jan. 8, 2014, media outlets began reporting on the incriminating personal emails and text messages that top Christie aide Bridget Anne Kelly had sent before and during the lane closures. The United States brought charges shortly thereafter against her and William Baroni Jr., a deputy executive director appointed by Christie to the Port Authority.
Both now stand trial for fraud and eight other charges related to the shutdown.
During cross-examination by Kelly's lawyer, Michael Critchley, McKenna said that it had not seemed important enough in late 2013 to tell Christie or others in the administration about Kelly's emails related to the lane shutdown.
"Did you discuss [the emails] with anybody?" Critchley asked several times.
"I'm not chief investigator, sir, I'm chief counsel," McKenna snapped back.
After stonewalling Sokolich during the lane shutdown, Kelly received an email in which Sokolich griped that the traffic problems were making him look like "a fucking idiot."
"Good," Kelly had replied to a colleague.
A number of other emails and text messages show Baroni and Kelly conversing with former Port Authority executive David Wildstein about the lane shutdown.
Wildstein, an appointee of Christie to the Port Authority, has already pleaded guilty to engineering the lane closures for political retribution. After cutting a plea deal, Wildstein has been the prosecution's key witness against Kelly and Baroni, who deny the charges against them.
McKenna also spoke about an email that Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye sent on Sept. 13, 2013, to end the lane shutdown.
The former general counsel said Foye's email was nothing more than "grandstanding." The email made a number of serious allegations, McKenna testified, but Foye never followed up on them with an internal investigation.
Earlier in the day, federal prosecutors called to the stand Michael DeFilippis, an officer with the Port Authority's police union. DeFilippis called out a press release Port Authority police union president Paul Nunziato sent out that backed up the traffic-study cover story.
"I say it's a lie," DeFillipis said of Nunziato's press release.
DeFillipis also admitted to advising that Nunziato "keep his mouth shut" during the burgeoning investigation into Bridgegate in late 2013.
He said Nunziato, who testified earlier in the trial, has "had numerous stupid quotes."
Before the prosecution rested today, it played a lengthy clip of Baroni testifying before New Jersey lawmakers on Nov. 25, 2013. During that sometimes-contentious testimony, Baroni repeatedly attributed the lane shutdown to an attempt to create "fairness" among commuters. The official noted - falsely, it turned out — that only 4.5 percent of commuters used Fort Lee's dedicated lanes.
At the time, Chairman John Wisniewski took issue with Baroni's repeated focus on fairness and his inability to explain how Fort Lee was not told of the lane shutdown. "I have to compliment you on trying to change the subject," Wisniewski said during the 2013 hearing. "Clearly your political skills are what got you your position at the Port Authority."
Baroni himself is expected to testify again, this time on his own behalf in the Bridgegate trial. That testimony could come as early as Friday afternoon. Before that, however, Critchley will continue with his cross-examination of McKenna.Follow @NickRummell
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