Bridgegate Witness Interrogation|Dredges Up Dirty Tricks From Past

     NEWARK, N.J. (CN) — Under fierce cross-examination at the Bridgegate trial Thursday, the government’s star witness insisted that he was the one who brought a smile to the face of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie with news of the traffic jam orchestrated for his benefit.
     David Wildstein, who has pleaded guilty to related charges last year, has been on the stand all week.
     Wildstein had Christie to thank for his job at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and acknowledged that he abused his office in 2013 to make trouble for a Democratic mayor in Fort Lee who was not supporting Republican Christie’s re-election.
     That September, two of Fort Lee’s three lanes to the George Washington Bridge were closed for four days — stranding commuters, buses and emergency vehicles in a sea of gridlock. One of the busiest bridges in the world, the George Washington Bridge connects the Garden State to New York City.
     Wildstein is the government’s star witness against William Baroni Jr., his former boss at the Port Authority, and Christie’s former chief of staff Bridget Ann Kelly.
     Kicking off a second day of cross-examination Thursday morning, Baroni’s attorney tried to get Wildstein to say that the yarn he has been spinning for federal prosecutors has changed over the years.
     Wildstein told the court earlier this week that he saw Baroni tell the governor about the lane shutdown in its third day, at a 9/11 memorial event. Christie appeared pleased about the traffic havoc in Fort Lee, Wildstein said.
     But Michael Baldassare on Thursday asked whether Wildstein initially took credit for the lane closures but revised his story to implicate Baroni.
     “You were telling different people different stories,” the attorney said.
     Wildstein disagreed.
     “I recall telling prosecutors that Mr. Baroni led the conversation, and I was there,” the witness said.
     Baldassare hearkened back to Monday testimony, when Wildstein talked about getting the idea for using the George Washington Bridge as a political weapon against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich.
     Wildstein said he was touring Fort Lee one day in 2011 when he observed cones cordoning off three entry lanes to the bridge unofficially reserved for the city.
     “This could be a potential leverage point with Mr. Sokolich down the road,” Wildstein said he thought.
     Baldassare seized on this.
     “You wanted to take full credit for the cones, correct?” the attorney asked. “Single credit. Just you.”
     Again Wildstein disagreed. “I never had the intention of bragging about the cones,” he said.
     Taking a swipe at the witness’s character, Baldassare also reminded the court about how Wildstein once stole a coat from the late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg — hoping the elderly Democrat would have to borrow someone else’s jacket and be uncomfortable.
     “Didn’t you want to brag about this the way you bragged about stealing Frank Lautenberg’s jacket,” Baldassare asked.     
     Wildstein also on the stand today recalled cutting off Baroni’s vacation plans as the New Jersey Legislature probed the “traffic study” that Port Authority initially blamed for the lane closures.
     Baroni had been on his way to the airport, trying to catch a flight to Ireland, when Wildstein summoned him back to the office.
     Wildstein said the goverenor’s office had just determined that it would be Baroni alone who would testify on Nov. 25 before lawmakers.
     The Legislature had invited Baroni and Wildstein both to testify, as well as Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye and another official with the agency.
     Prosecutors built their case against Baroni and Kelly in part with emails and text messages that they sent Wildstein.
     Baldassare drilled into why Wildstein never had group texts or emails with Baroni and Kelly.
     He asked whether the objective was to tell them different stories, but Wildstein disagreed.
     “My very strong preference was not to create group emails or group texts,” Wildstein replied.
     Baldassare didn’t buy it.
     “You thought email was safe and yet you never had a three-way email,” the attorney asked.
     Wilstein said he thought texting between personal phones would be safe from investigatory eyes.
     Throughout Wildstein’s testimony, the witness has implicated a number of other public officials as having been privy to the so-called Bridgegate plot.
     Baroni and Kelly remain the only two charged, but the government has successfully kept secret a list of unindicted co-conspirators.
     This week’s testimony all but assures that the list includes Christie’s name as well as his former chief of staff, Bill Stepien; former Port Authority Chairman David Sampson, who was charged with bribery in an unrelated case; and current Port Authority Commissioner William Schuber.
     Each of the men has denied any misconduct. Christie maintains that he had no knowledge of the plot — learning about the scandal only after the lanes had reopened — but Wildstein has been contradicting that story on the stand.
     The scandal torpedoed the Republican’s presidential campaign, and Christie subsequently aligned himself with the Donald Trump ticket.
     Baldassare began his cross-examination on Wednesday by noting a 15-year sentence, the maximum Wildstein faces, would keep him in prison until he is 70.
     “I suppose,” Wildstein replied quietly.
     Baldassare relentlessly grilled Wildstein on his many meetings with federal officials, which resulted in a plea deal and cooperation agreement. Those deals may result in prosecutors suing for leniency on Wildstein’s behalf, though nothing is officially promised.
     Under dogged questioning by Baldassare, Wildstein said: “I made my best effort to be truthful” to prosecutors during his many meetings with the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office.

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