JERSEY CITY, N.J. (CN) – One of the key figures in the Bridgegate scandal will now be a key figure in the Trump administration.
Bill Stepien, a name that came up frequently in the recent trial on politically orchestrated lane closures that rattled New Jersey in 2013, was named Wednesday as political director for the president-elect.
Stepien denies any role in the plot to close lanes leading on to the George Washington Bridge but was at one time close to the two people convicted this summer of the conspiracy.
Indeed the plot involved cooperation between the public agency that runs the bridge – called the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey – and the state agency Stepien once oversaw for Gov. Chris Christie.
Meant to inconvenience a Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for slighting Christie, the September 2013 lane closures snarled commuters, emergency vehicles and school buses in gridlock traffic for four days.
Stepien pivoted from Christie’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, abbreviated as the IGA, to Christie’s re-election campaign just months before the lane closures.
Like the governor, Stepien was never indicted, but emails and text messages show he knew about Bridgegate before it occurred and that the IGA had a history under his leadership of punishing mayors and other political officials.
A federal jury handed convictions at the end of the seven-week trial to Stepien’s successor at the IGA, Bridget Anne Kelly, and to Bill Baroni Jr., Christie’s top appointee at the Port Authority. Both maintain their innocence and have appealed the verdict.
The government’s case hinged on testimony from the admitted Bridgegate mastermind David Wildstein. Seen by many as Christie’s enforcer at the Port Authority, Wildstein gave the bi-state agency a reputation for overpoliticization.
Few reputations survived Wildstein’s lengthy stint on the stand unscathed.
Testifying as part of a plea deal, Wildstein told the court that he told Stepien in August 2013, a month before the lane closures, about the plan to punish Fort Lee, and that Kelly had signed off on it. Stepien had one question, according to Wildstein: “What story do we use” as a cover-up.
During the trial, Stepien’s attorney Kevin Marino called Wildstein’s accusations “sad and self-serving.”
Wildstein and Stepien had known each other for more than a decade. They both worked on the failed U.S. Senate run of Rep. Bob Franks, along with Baroni and Mike DuHaime, who had jumped ship from the Christie camp to work on Trump’s presidential campaign.
Stepien would later work for DuHaime’s political consulting firm and on Baroni’s 2002 campaign for the New Jersey Assembly.
Stepien also helped on the campaigns of George W. Bush and Rudy Giuliani, the latter of which is now a close Trump ally.
Until he became linked to Bridgegate, Stepien was considered by many a political wunderkind, particularly in New Jersey politics. Days before Christie fired him in 2014, Stepien was tapped to run New Jersey’s Republican party.
The Bridgegate scandal broke open in early 2014, when emails came to light showing Kelly telling Wildstein that it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Another email showed Stepien callously insulting Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, calling him an idiot.
After the emails were revealed, Christie fired both Kelly and Stepien, saying he had “lost faith” in them.
Stepien’s name emerged again in pretrial matters last year when counsel produced electronic messages between Christie staffers. In one of the texts, a staffer wrote that Christie “flat out lied about senior staff and Stepien not being involved” in the scandal.
Jurors also saw emails that showed Stepien advising IGA staffers to offer “goodies” to public officials who were in Christie’s good graces, and to punish those who had fallen out of favor with the governor.
In one case Stepien ordered a subordinate to “lose” the number of Freeholder John Curley. In another he told Kelly to “ice” Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, a euphemism for freezing them out of communications with the governor. Stepien would later tell Kelly in an email that “it will send a good message to this guy.”
Back in the early days of the scandal, the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher effectively exonerated Stepien in a report commissioned by Christie. Randy Mastro, a former mob prosecutor, led the investigation, which concluded that Kelly, and not Stepien, had been responsible for politicizing the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.
Stepien’s brief romantic relationship with Kelly in the months prior to Bridgegate earned mention in the report. Stepien had once been a mentor to Kelly. She later referred to Stepien in testimony as “a political animal” and “someone who I learned a lot from.”
Trump’s transition team wasted little time creating distance from Bridgegate after the election. Stepien is one of the few to survive the campaign’s purge of former Christie staffers and those with close ties to Christie. Vice President-elect Mike Pence replaced Christie himself as head of the transition team almost immediately after Trump’s win.
Part of the campaign since August, Stepien was reportedly was instrumental in helping Trump win the Democratic strongholds of Michigan and Wisconsin, part of the so-called Blue Wall that some say Hillary Clinton had taken for granted.