Police Chief Tells of ‘Weird’ Meeting at Bridgegate’s Start

     NEWARK, N.J. (CN) — Fort Lee’s police chief testified Tuesday about his “cloak-and-dagger” meeting with a Port Authority official at the outset of the 2013 five-day lane closure that soon rocked New Jersey with lasting implications for Gov. Chris Christie.
     “I thought it was very weird, very clock-and-dagger,” Fort Lee Police Chief Keith Bendul told the court this morning.
     When the lane shutdown began on Sept. 9, 2013, Bendul said he called officials at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to get an explanation. He eventually requested to talk with Robert Durando, the general manager of the George Washington Bridge’s toll plaza.
     Bendul, who is the government’s first witness in the Bridgegate trial, testified in U.S. District Court on Tuesday that his meeting with Durando occurred in a municipal parking lot — at the general manager’s insistence.
     Durando seemed nervous and afraid, and he blamed the lane closures on a traffic study, Bendul testified. In addition to wanting the meeting off Port Authority property, Durando allegedly ended the conversation by warning Bendul to deny the meeting ever took place.
     The police chief said he was livid during the sketchy meeting. His office was being bombarded with road-rage complaints on top of other issues, including a missing 4-year-old.
     He remembered yelling at Durando, saying, “if anybody died, I would sue him and everybody at the Port Authority.”
     Port Authority is not commenting on the trial, a spokesman said this morning.
     Bendul’s testimony is the start of a long trial road for Christie’s former chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and her co-defendant William Baroni Jr., a onetime deputy executive director at the Port Authority.
     Federal prosecutors say the shutdown was engineered as political retribution against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie in the gubernatorial race.
     Kelly’s defense attorney Michael Critchley used his cross-examination of Bendul to brighten up the description of the municipal lot meeting. “Anybody looking out the windows could see you talking,” Critchley said, noting that the lot in question is just outside Port Authority offices.
     Critchley also referenced an email Durando sent Port Authority official David Wildstein later that morning about the Bendul meeting.
     Bendul testified for roughly three hours before U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes called Sokolich to the stand.
     The Fort Lee mayor told the court about an odd meeting with Wildstein, years before the lane closures, while Sokolich and Baroni were touring the construction site of the 9/11 memorial.
     “So you’re the one we have to be nice to,” Wildstein remarked repeatedly, according to the mayor’s testimony.
     So far, proceedings have not touched on the blockbuster implication from prosecutors concerning Gov. Christie’s knowledge of the lane closures.
     During opening statements Monday, prosecutors noted for the first time that their star witness will be contradicting Christie’s claim that he was ignorant of the traffic jam’s political motivations.
     David Wildstein, a former director of interstate capital with the Port Authority, is testifying as part of a plea he struck with the government last year.
     The Port Authority’s involvement in the case stems from a traffic study that was initially blamed for causing the lane closures, but later blasted as a cover-up.
     Sokolich, who is a Democrat, had been supportive of Christie but had gently refused to endorse the Republican governor for re-election due to his highly Democratic constituency.
     Prosecutors believe that refusal motivated Christie aides to shut down two of Fort Lee’s three exclusive lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge.
     Sokolich spent most of the afternoon retelling his personal experience with the traffic jams on the first two days of the shutdown, Sept. 9 and Sept. 10, which he described as “concrete gridlock” where cars could not move at all. “We were completely shut down [in Fort Lee],” the mayor said. “Nobody could get anywhere.”
     During the shutdown, emails revealed that Wildstein had advised Baroni to initiate “radio silence” to Sokolich’s many repeated calls for help. During his testimony today, Sokolich said he had suspected somebody being “mad at him” was at the heart of the radio silence.
     “There was no plausible explanation” for the two consecutive days of gridlock without a response from the Port Authority, he told the court. “I was begging somebody to help.”
     Sokolich will likely finish his testimony tomorrow, after which Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye is expected to take the stand.
     Among the other high-profile witnesses who could be called to testify is New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who appointed Foye.
     Gov. Christie also has been named as a potential witness for the prosecution. Though stumping for Donald Trump on the presidential campaign trail as of late, Christie maintains 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.
     Electronic communications like this paved the way to Wildstein and Kelly’s indictment.
     “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly said in a message to Wildstein before the lane closures.
     Once the lane closures were in place, Kelly had little sympathy for the schoolchildren getting stuck in the bridge traffic.
     “Is it wrong that I’m smiling,” Kelly had asked.
     “These are the children of Buono voters,” Wildstein wrote, referring to Democrat Barbara Buono who had lost the gubernatorial race to Christie in 2013.
     Wildstein also included a disparaging remark about Mayor Sokolich’s Croation heritage. “It will be a tough November for this little Serbian,” he wrote.
     A more damning bit of evidence against Baroni includes Wildstein’s text that an official at the Port Authority was “helping us to retaliate.”
     Baroni is represented by Michael Baldassare with Baldassare & Mara.
     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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