Witness Tells of Christie Fury on Bridge Emails

     NEWARK, N.J. (CN) — A day before assuring the public that none of his senior staffers were complicit in lane closures that crippled New Jersey traffic in 2013, Gov. Chris Christie heard about emails proving otherwise, a witness said Tuesday.
     Kicking off this week’s proceedings after the long weekend, ex-Christie staffer Deborah Gramiccioni told the court about the frenzy in the governor’s office after four days of George Washington Bridge gridlock that September.
     Christie had won the gubernatorial re-election in November by a landslide, but attention on the bridge scandal continued to mount.
     By December, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey forced the resignations of David Wildstein and Bill Baroni Jr. The Port Authority initially said the lane closures were part of a traffic study, but prosecutors call this a pretense. They say Christie allies wanted to hurt Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for backing a Democrat over the governor in the election.
     Wildstein and Baroni both owed their Port Authority jobs to Christie, but the governor took pains to distance his office from the scandal.
     “I’ve made it very clear to everybody on my senior staff that if anyone had any knowledge about this that they needed to come forward to me and tell me about,” Christie said at a Dec. 13 press conference on Baroni’s departure. “And they’ve all assured me that they don’t.”
     It would be another month before the public learned of evidence linking the scandal to Bridget Anne Kelly, deputy chief of staff to the governor at the time.
     Gramiccioni testified Tuesday, however, that Christie knew beforehand.
     With Wildstein having already pleaded guilty, Gramiccioni took the stand for federal prosecutors this morning to testify at Baroni and Kelly’s joint fraud trial in Newark.
     Other witnesses in the trial have brought up examples of Christie staffers transitioning between his campaign and public offices, and Gramiccioni is the latest example.
     When Gramiccioni sat down with Baroni on Dec. 12 about being appointed his successor, according to her testimony, she asked whether there was any truth to the “hum” in the office about Kelly having sent emails about the lane closures.
     Baroni’s confirmation of this sent Gramiccioni to the governor that day; she said Christie was visibly concerned, “upset in his body,” at the news.
     That concern apparently turned to outrage on the morning of Dec. 13.
     Just an hour before the governor’s 11 a.m. press conference, according to the witness’s testimony, Christie held a meeting with senior staffers and told them to scour their accounts for emails on the lane closures.
     Gramiccioni said Christie was “incredibly angry” and used a “thunderous tone,” telling staffers to send whatever they found to his chief counsel, Charles McKenna, and his chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd.
     There was no visible reaction from Kelly to the directive, the witness added.
     Kelly’s attorney Michael Critchley prompted several sustained objections from prosecutors in his cross-examination this afternoon.
     “All that sound and fury was just made up,” Critchley said after Gramiccioni denied knowing that Christie lied to reporters an hour after railing against staffers in the meeting.
     During testimony last week, another former Christie staffer, Christina Renna, walked back her assertion that Christie lied.
     Renna also spoke about her deletion mid-press-conference of an email she received from Kelly at the height of the lane closures.
     The Sept. 12, 2013, message contained Kelly’s response of “good” to learning that Sokolich was upset about Fort Lee’s traffic issues.
     Critchley faced another sustained objection Tuesday in slamming Christie’s press conference as “a sham.”
     As Baroni’s successor to the Port Authority, Gramiccioni claimed to have cleaned up several political pitfalls, including hefty discretionary spending budgets for New York and New Jersey projects.
     Gramiccioni said she also eliminated Wildstein’s position at the Port Authority — one that previous witness testimony has established as wholly invented by Christie to put Wildstein in office.
     Another holdover from the Wildstein era that Gramiccioni eliminated was the so-called one-constituent rule. Wildstein testified that the rule was meant for Christie allies like him to emphasize the governor’s interests as their No. 1 priority.
     In addition to unsubscribing from that rule, Gramiccioni said she had her office swept for bugs when she took over as deputy executive director of the Port Authority.
     Wildstein’s reputaion prompted the bug sweep and Gramiccioni’s habit of making sure there was always a third party on the phone if she ever needed to speak to him.
     Gramiccioni left the Port Authority in early 2015 – taking an executive director position at the New York University School of Law. She says she is still friendly and in regular contact with Gov. Christie.
     Though Christie has maintained ignorance of the retribution plot, the scandal dashed his campaign this year in the Republican presidential primary. The governor now serves as a surrogate for nominee Donald Trump.
     In the courtroom for Tuesday’s testimony is a longtime rival of Christie’s: New Jersey state Sen. Loretta Weinberg.
     The Democratic senator represents 13 Bergen County municipalities, including Fort Lee. Traditionally the city has three reserved entrance lanes to the George Washington Bridge. It lost two in September 2013, marooning commuters, emergency vehicles and school buses in hours of traffic. The bridge is one of the busiest in the world, connecting New Jersey to New York City.
     After excusing Gramiccioni from the stand, prosecutors Port Authority police union president Paul Nunziato.
     Though the state has evidence about chummy texts Nunziato exchanged with Wildstein, Nunziato was somewhat negative in his testimony about Wildstein.
     Nunziato characterized Wildstein as adversarial and Baroni as gentlemanly.
     The union president is credited with coming up with the nickname “Meyer Lansky” for Wildstein, a mob reference Wildstein admittedly enjoyed.
     Wildstein also spoke about Nuziato having offered to take responsibility for the lane-closure plot when Wildstein’s job was on the line.
     Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye and Wildstein had been at loggerheads over the scandal, and one court exhibit shows Nunziato telling Wildstein he could make his problem go away.
     “Do you want me to have one of my guys accidentally shoot him in the head?” the union president asked Wildstein once with regard to Foye.
     Nunziato has said Baroni asked him to take responsibility for the lane closures when the New Jersey Legislature was set to question Baroni in November 2013.
     Michael DeFilippis, a fellow Port Authority police union official, told of a similar request by Baroni later.
     Both witnesses testified today that, during a meeting in Baroni’s office, Baroni pointed to a stack of papers and told the two police officers they were looking at a traffic study that they had requested due to safety concerns at the bridge by Port Authority police.
     Nunziato and DiFilippis told the court that they rebuffed Baroni’s attempts to have them take responsibility for the traffic study.
     Baroni told lawmakers nevertheless on Nov. 25, 2013, that Nunziato and DeFilippis had requested the traffic study.
     Recalling having watched a live stream of the hearing, DeFilippis told the court today that Baroni’s testimony struck a nerve.
     “He’s full of shit,” DeFilippis remembered saying about Baroni.

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