Christie’s Favor Assured, Bridgegate Plotter Says

     NEWARK, N.J. (CN) — The man who took responsibility for orchestrating a massive New Jersey traffic jam three years ago testified Wednesday that he was assured Gov. Chris Christie’s favor for doing so.
     You are “still on the governor’s team,” David Wildstein said he heard from several officials in Christie’s office in early December 2010.
     By that time, the cover-up story for the September traffic jam Wildstein engineered had already begun to unravel, and Wildstein received his marching orders from the agency that oversees New York-area bridges and tunnels.
     When Wildstein pleaded guilty last year to fraud and conspiracy, he admitted that he orchestrated the closure of lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge to make trouble for a Democratic mayor in Fort Lee who was not supporting the Republican Christie’s re-election.
     One of the busiest bridges in the world, the George Washington Bridge connects the Garden State to New York City. Christie had installed Wildstein at the public agency that runs the bridge, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and is even alleged to have created Wildstein’s title.
     Wildstein has spent four days so far on the stand to support the government’s case against two accused co-conspirators: Christie’s former chief of staff, Bridget Ann Kelly, and former Port Authority Executive Director, William Baroni Jr.
     Christie himself has not been charged, but the scandal torpedoed the Republican’s presidential campaign. 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 jury saw pictures Tuesday of Christie, Baroni and Wildstein at a 9/11 memorial event, which had been Day 3 of the lane shutdown.
     Wildstein says he told Christie about his machinations that day, and that the governor appeared pleased.
     He told the jury today that “Christie was happy” come December when Wildstein was taking responsibility for the lane closures.
     Though Wildstein officially resigned from the Port Authority on Dec. 6, he testified that no one saw this as the end.
     Christie’s campaign manager at the time, Bill Stepien, and other Christie aides told Wildstein, according to the witness’s testimony, that he was still expected to play some role in advancing Christie’s future.
     Stepien, whom Christie wound up firing for “poor judgment,” faced some damning testimony by Wildstein earlier this week as well.
     Though the former aide has maintained his innocence, he took heat in the early days of the controversy for having called Sokolich an “idiot.”
     Baroni’s attorney had predicted early on that Wildstein would be “trading scalps” to reduce his possible sentence, but Wildstein told the court Wednesday that he was ready to be the fall guy.
     “I’ll take this, this is on me,” Wildstein said he told Kelly on Dec. 6 when announcing his departure.
     He said Kelly was emotional about it, and told him she said she was sorry.
     Wildstein described Baroni meanwhile as nervous about his own imminent firing.
     On Dec. 11, the men met at a Hyatt Regency hotel in New Jersey, where “discussed getting our stories straight,” Wildstein said.
     When Port Authority finally did force out Baroni, on Dec. 13, Wildstein said his former boss was very upset and very emotional.
     Touching on an issue that defense attorneys are sure to revisit on cross-examination, Wildstein spoke about the boxes of personal items he took from the Port Authority after resigning.
     He said he took an old hard drive of Baroni’s because Baroni had given it to him a year earlier when he got a new computer.
     What is on that hard drive is unclear, but in a case brimming with electronic evidence like this one, the drive’s worth cannot be underestimated.
     Prosecutors built their case with communications the accused co-conspirators sent before and during the lane closures.
     The day after Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich turned down the many overtures by Christie staffers to endorse the Republican governor in his re-election bid, Kelly emailed Wildstein: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
     Wildstein told the court that he kept everything, and was never told to delete text messages or emails.
     Defense attorneys hope to paint a picture that Wildstein was plotting to throw Kelly and Baroni under the bus even as he was being escorted out of Port Authority facilities.
     Kelly could be overheard outside the courtroom Monday telling friends, “it’s been a long three years.”
     On Wednesday, Wildstein told the court that Baroni lied in 2013 about various things when he testified before the New Jersey transportation committee.
     Baroni maintains that the lane closures were part of a legitimate traffic study, and told the committee at the time that the study was planned in advance.
     This was a lie, Wildstein said, as was Baroni’s assertion that the three bridge lanes unofficially reserved for Fort Lee accounted for a small percentage of traffic.
     Baroni said just 4.5 percent of total traffic used the Fort Lee lanes, but Wildstein said the 4.5 percent figure covers only the Fort Lee residents, not counting the general traffic that uses the lanes.
     Wildstein told the court about a text message from Baroni he received on Nov. 25 before Baroni testified in front of the committee.
     It was a picture of Winston Wolfe, the iconic “Pulp Fiction” character played by Harvey Keitel.
     “I understood it perfectly,” Wildstein said.
     At opening statements, the court heard that Gov. Christie saw Wildstein as his “Mr. Wolfe,” meaning his fixer.
     Wildstein took Baroni’s text as meaning he was going to go before the committee and fix the problem.
     Baroni supposedly boasted that he had “outfoxed” and “outwitted” lawmakers in his explanation of the traffic study.
     After the prosecution finished questioning Wildstein on Wednesay, Baroni’s attorney, Michael Baldassare, began cross-examination.
     Trying to paint Wildstein as the one who pulled the strings on Baroni, Baldassare brought up an email Wildstein sent Baroni while the lane closures were in effect.
     “You told bill radio silence, and he went radio silent,” the attorney said.
     Baldassare pressed on as Wildstein countered that Baroni was just doing what they both previously discussed would be the plan.
     “Mr. Baroni did what you told him to,” the attorney said.
     The court excused the jury for 15 minutes Wednesday for a sidebar concerning Wildstein.
     Baldassare questioned why Wildstein was such a strong witness now when he invoked his Fifth Amendment rights before a state legislative committee.
     Though New Jersey lawmakers held Wildstein in contempt for not answering questions, Baldassare said Wildstein knew that this misdemeanor crime only risked prosecution by the New Jersey attorney general, a position appointed by the governor.
     Wildstein thought he was still under Christie’s protection, but, as soon as the FBI gets involved, he “sings like a j-bird,” Baldassare said.
     Baldassare’s cross-examination of Wildstein is expected to spill into Thursday. Kelly’s attorney, Michael Critchley, will likely cross-examine the witness for another two days.

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