Former Christie Aide Lays Blame|on Cuomo for Cover-Up of Bridge Plot

     NEWARK (CN) — An attorney for the woman accused of plotting New Jersey’s political traffic jam of 2013 maneuvered Thursday to blame the cover-up on Gov. Chris Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
     “If there was a cover-up, Judge, it was not because of Bridget Kelly,” said Kelly’s attorney Michael Critchley.
     Along with Bill Baroni Jr., who had been Christie’s top appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Kelly is five weeks through a federal trial over politically orchestrated gridlock at the George Washington Bridge. The four-day-long lane closures in September 2013 caused unprecedented traffic for New Jersey commuters, particularly in brige-adjacent Fort Lee.
     That city’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, had declined to endorse Christie’s re-election just before the lane closures — news of which prompted Kelly to send email implicating her in the plot. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” she wrote.
     While both Baroni and convicted plotter David Wildstein were Christie appointees to the Port Authority, the public agency that runs the bridge, Kelly was a senior staffer in the governor’s office at the time.
     Her defense seeks to cast doubt on the government’s theory that she could have participated in the Port Authority cover-up, which attributed the lane closures to a traffic study as the scandal grew.
     With Kelly slated to testify herself Friday, Critchley this morning called to the stand Port Authority commissioner Scott Rechler. A Cuomo appointee, Rechler coincidentally ends his five-year tenure with the bi-state agency today.
     The jury was not present in courtroom when prosecutors lodged a pre-emptive objection to a line of questioning Critchley had planned for Rechler. The sidebar was one of several between the opposing parties today, some of which played out in front of the jury.
     Kelly’s defense team blames the cover-up on “third-party activity,” and wanted Rechler to admit that Christie and Cuomo were orchestrating this together in December 2013 communications about the lane closures.
     Rechler testified this morning about a call he received from Cuomo on Dec. 4, just before a meeting of the Port Authority Board of Commissioners. Up until this past May, Rechler had been vice chair of the board, working alongside Christie-appointed chairman David Samson.
     Critchley tried to pin Rechler down about the meaning of what he told his assistant: that he would call Cuomo back after the meeting, “in case Pat does anything different.”
     Pat is a reference to Pat Foye, the Cuomo-appointed executive director of the Port Authority. Evidence has shown that Foye was vocal about decrying the lane closures as political, yet still allowed the Port Authority to put out the initial press release that blamed the lane closures on a traffic study. It was Foye who reopened the closed Fort Lee lanes by executive order on Sept. 13.
     Critchley wants the jury to deduce that Rechler would inform the governor whether Foye got off-message about the cover-up.
     Rechler would admit only to the call, though, insisting that Cuomo did not give him any direction. Christie and Cuomo were conversing in December, Rechler admitted, but he did not confirm that the governors were coordinating a response to Bridgegate.
     Objections from the prosecution kept Rechler from answering whether Christie shared with Cuomo his concern that Foye was meddling in New Jersey politics during an election year.
     Foye helped prosecutors earlier in the trial when he testified about Baroni having asked him repeatedly to close the lanes again after reopening them calling it “important to Trenton,” the home of Christie’s office.
     Rechler painted that conversation in a different light today, however, describing his conversation with a “frantic” Baroni on the day the lanes reopened.
     He said Baroni was worried that Foye would paint New Jersey in a bad light.
     Under cross-examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney David Feder, Rechler quoted Baroni as telling him that “lanes were closed through guidance from Trenton.”
     Rechler said he didn’t get an explanation.
     “The only answer I got was it’s important to Trenton,” he said.
     Referring to Cuomo, defense attorney Critchley asked: “Was it ever important to the second floor?”
     Rechler said he had no contact with the second floor right away, and that their eventual conversation was broader in scope.
     Though Christie’s role in the plot has long been suspected, Cuomo’s potential involvement gained momentum earlier in this month with testimony from Wildstein, the government’s star witness.
     Seen as Christie’s enforcer at the Port Authority, Wildstein pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy and fraud in connection to the lane closures
     Testifying that Christie and Cuomo’s offices had been in discussion about the lane closures, Wildstein on Oct. 4 said he heard about somebody having called Albany “to call Pat Foye off.”
     Rechler told the court about emails he had been exchanging with Foye through late November, strategizing about how to get Wildstein fired.
     Making no attempt to hide his disdain for Wildstein, Rechler referring to the man as “a cancer” and “a negative for the agency.”
     “My role was to depoliticize the port, and David Wildstein represented the complete opposite of that,” Rechler said.
     Wildstein’s elimination had been in the works since at least Sept. 19, as documented in a email from Rechler to his chief of staff, David Garten.
     Of Wilstein, Rechler had told Garten to “make sure our first shot is powerful because he is not the guy to go down easy.”
     Rechler warned in that email to be careful of a “wounded and angry DW.”
     Rechler told the court that Wildstein’s presence as a political operative had led to the lane closures, and that the Port Authority’s governance structure also to blame.
     Part of Baroni’s defense hinges on the argument that he was not privy to Wildstein’s political machinations, but Rechler said others at the Port Authority saw Wildstein and Baroni as “a unit.”
     Rechler testified that people also had a nickname for Samson, the former New Jersey attorney general whom Christie appointed as Port Authority chair in 2011.
     Code-named “the general,” Samson resigned last year in the aftermath of the bridge scandal. Succeeded by John Degnan as Port Authority chair, Samson pleaded guilty this past July to a felony bribery count. Unrelated to Bridgegte, Samson admitted that he had used United Airlines’ plans for a larger hangar at Newark Airport as leverage for his travel convenience.
     Rechler testified that Samson was no fan of Foye, forever blaming the Cuomo appointee about leaks to the press about the lane closures.
     Samson also complained about Foye’s contributions to the rift between the New York and New Jersey chambers of the Port Authority, Rechler said.
     Critchley showed the court an email Samson sent Rechler on Dec. 6 email. “He’s dangerous to all,” Samson said of Foye.
     Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi told Courthouse News by email that Thursday’s testimony “confirms what we have said all along and further disproves Mr. Wildstein’s false hearsay testimony from earlier this month.”
     He added, “There were long-time tensions between New York and New Jersey staff at the Port Authority before, during and after Bridgegate that were discussed at all levels. That’s well known and was brought to light again in today’s testimony. However, there was no conversation between the governors concerning a ‘plan’ to have Pat Foye stand down or to have the issue ‘whitewashed’ through a report. Pat Foye was in fact a whistle-blower — he never stood down and no report was ever prepared or issued.”

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