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Katz on Christie

A regular blog that keeps tabs on the activities and fortunes of our renowned Governor, Chris Christie.
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Wildstein Implicates Christie's Campaign Manager -- and More Bridgegate Trial Day 6 Takeaways

Matt Katz | September 27, 2016

Monday's entire day of proceedings in Bridgegate was a continuation of prosecutors' questioning of David Wildstein, the admitted Bridgegate co-conspirator who is cooperating with authorities and testifying on behalf of the prosecution. He revealed lots of new nuggets about the inner workings of the Christie Administration and its efforts at punishing the mayor of Fort Lee with traffic jams for not endorsing Gov. Chris Christie. 

1. The Donald Trump campaign's national field director "knew." Before Bill Stepien was Trump’s national field director, he was Christie’s political Svengali. He ran Christie’s underdog campaign for governor, then ran the unit in the governor’s office that was used to win endorsements from mayors by giving them stuff, like tickets to sports games or wreckage from Ground Zero. The mayor of Fort Lee got all of this, but when he decided not to endorse, Wildstein helped to punish him by closing the lanes. Wildstein said today in court that he told Stepien about the plan beforehand, while Stepien was running Christie's reelection campaign. Wildstein also said he told Stepien how he’d cover it all up by claiming the traffic was just because of some traffic study.

Stepien, through his attorney Kevin Marino, denied having anything to do with this: "The government investigated the entire Bridgegate affair for 16 months, interviewed Mr. Wildstein and scores of other witnesses on multiple occasions, reviewed thousands of documents including hundreds of emails, and in the end did not charge Mr. Stepien with wrongdoing of any kind. That is because Mr. Stepien did not engage in wrongdoing of any kind. Despite what Mr. Wildstein apparently feels compelled to say now, Mr. Stepien  had no role in planning, approving or concealing his ill-advised scheme to close access lanes to the GWB."

But Wildstein was unambiguous, and specific. "After you received Miss Kelly's 'time for some traffic problems' email," prosecutor Lee Cortes asked, "did there come a time when you discussed it with Mr. Stepien?"

"Yes, I did," Wildstein replied. "I told Mr. Stepien that I had heard from Miss Kelly to close the Fort Lee lanes, and that I was moving forward to do so."

And how did Stepien respond?

"Mr. Stepien asked about what story we were going to use. And I explained to Mr. Stepien that I was going to create the cover of a traffic study."

The whole exchange shines a new light the recently-released text by Kelly's deputy, Christina Renna, in which Renna wrote that Christie "flat-out lied" when he said spoke at a press conference about "Stepien and senior staff not being involved."

2. It wasn’t just Ground Zero spoils: Previous testimony in the Bridgegate trial revealed the various ways officials in the Christie Administration and at the Port Authority wooed mayors whose endorsements were coveted. They gave tours of the Ground Zero site before it was open to the public, and flew flags over the site for a few minutes on the 10th anniversary of the attacks and then distributed those flags to the mayors. Burnt steel from the wreckage of the towers was hoarded and then distributed. But Christie appointees also sent toll money, Wildstein testified Monday, to Essex County parks in order to benefit the county executive there, Joseph "Joe D." DiVincenzo. Later, DiVincenzo endorsed Christie. 

3. Maximizing the pain to inconvenience school children. The initial plan, Wildstein testified, was to close the lanes at the end of August. But since the objective was "to maximize the message" to the mayor, defendant Bill Baroni asked Wildstein when the first day of school was, Wildstein alleged.

Wildstein went online and found out.

"Fantastic," Baroni said, according to Wildstein.

As Wildstein alleged this, Baroni sat at the defense table, shaking his head no.

4. The idea to close the lanes was hatched in 2011. During a trip to Fort Lee in 2011, Wildstein noticed three local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge. Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich was a friend of the Christie Administration at the time, but Wildstein "identified a potential leverage point" for the future. Ultimately, Wildstein closed two of those lanes to cause traffic in Fort Lee.

5. Wildstein had a shady political past -- but Christie's Port Authority created a job for him anyway. Assistant US Attorney Cortes painstakingly led Wildstein through his history as a dark arts political operative. He admitted stealing U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg's suit jacket before a senatorial debate in the early 1980s. Wildstein identified himself as Alan Alda's representative to pretend that the actor was going to run for Senate in New Jersey. And he acknowledged stealing copies of a local newspaper that was endorsing his opponent in a township council race in Livingston. After each tale, Cortes asked Wildstein if he had told this to Baroni, Christie's top appointee at the Port Authority, before Baroni decided to put Wildstein in a position helping to oversee billions of dollars of public assets. Yes, Wildstein said, he had. This indicated that Wildstein's job was to do dark political acts at the Port Authority.

6. When the lanes were closed and traffic was snarled,  Bridget Kelly "was pleased." Asked how defendant Kelly, the former Christie deputy chief of staff, reacted when Wildstein told her "the traffic was an absolute mess," Wildstein said she was "pleased." He added: "I knew that the plan I had set into motion was working. There was a lot of traffic."

7. Diners are the place to do dirty business in New Jersey. Hardly a political crime in New Jersey is committed without there being a diner involved. And so it goes: Before closing the lanes, Wildstein tipped off a Christie appointee on the Port Authority board of commissioners, Pat Schuber, over breakfast at a diner. Wildstein testified he wanted Schuber to ignore pleas for help from local officials. And on the morning the lane closures happened, Wildstein observed the traffic build-up and ignored public safety concerns while at a diner with a Port Authority police officer. Schuber, who is still on the Port Authority board, testified under oath before the New Jersey Legislature that he had no prior knowledge of the closures. In a statement released Monday, he held to that position.

But prosecutors entered into evidence an email Wildstein sent to Schuber on August 29, ten days before the closures, saying: "I need to brief you on a local Fort Lee/GWB issue."

8. Everything had to be approved with Christie's office. Even a menorah lighting ceremony that Baroni wanted to attend with Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee. The prosecution highlighted this to call into question whether the governor's office really wouldn't be fully aware about a major traffic situation at the George Washington Bridge.

9. Wildstein's title was so made up he didn't even know what it meant. Wildstein's position was created for him by the Port Authority. His real job was to handle politics for the Christie Administration.  

"Do you know what the director of interstate capital projects means?" Cortes, the prosecutor, asked.

"No, sir, I don't know what that means," he said.

Matt Katz, New Jersey Public Radio/WNYC
Political reporter Matt Katz is The Christie Tracker at WNYC.org. NJ Spotlight is hosting his blog and running his stories, which can also be heard on WNYC 93.9 FM and 820 AM, as well as New Jersey Public Radio: Trenton 88.1, Sussex 88.5, Netcong 89.3, and Toms River 90.3.
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