Despite two years of denials and a multimillion dollar internal investigation funded by the taxpayers that cleared him of any wrongdoing, Gov. Chris Christie may finally have to explain in detail when and how he knew about a now-notorious 2013 traffic jam at the George Washington Bridge. As opening arguments made clear on the first day of the Bridgegate trial, Christie’s actions and knowledge of the incident will be at the center of the legal action that is expected to last for the next six weeks.
In U.S. Federal Court yesterday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Vikas Khanna, arguing on behalf of the state, said that Christie knew about the closing of commuter lanes at the mouth of the George Washington Bridge in the fall of 2013 as they were happening. Federal prosecutors attempted to make the case that Christie loyalists closed the lanes to the bridge in order to create a massive traffic jam in Fort Lee as part of a politically motivated scheme to punish the city’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, who refused to endorse the Republican during his 2013 reelection bid.
Christie has repeatedly blamed the closings on the work of a few rogue staffers. But Khanna as well as attorneys for the two defendants, former Port Authority executive Bill Baroni and Christie's deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly, yesterday characterized Christie as having a greater role in the controversy than previously assumed.
Baroni’s defense attorney Michael Baldassare, for example, characterized political operative David Wildstein as a “ventriloquist doll” used by the governor to carry out his various schemes, including his agenda at the Port Authority, where Christie appointed Wildstein in 2010. Kelly defense attorney Michael Critchley, meanwhile, described Christie as maintaining a “connected” inner circle of advisors, including Wildstein, that perpetuated a “culture of fear” in the front office, which the Republican used to deal with the media and political associates.
That circle, which Critchley presented to the jury in an infographic, included Wildstein, but also Republican strategist Michael DuHaime, former Christie communications director Michael Drewniak, and former chief of staff Kevin O’Dowd, who Critchley said was “without a doubt” a liar, a fact he said he’d prove by the end of the trial.
Baroni and Kelly are both charged in the case, accused of nine counts of conspiracy, fraud, and other charges in connection with their involvement in the closures. Wildstein, a childhood friend of Christie’s who once ran an anonymous but hugely popular Trenton political blog, pleaded guilty to his own set of charges last year and is now cooperating with prosecutors as a witness.
Although there were plenty of other details the, the accusation that Christie, who has continually denied any knowledge of the lane closings, might have been aware of the them while they were happening was the most shocking statement of the day. And it promises to be a main point for the trial going forward, since the prosecution said there is evidence they will introduce to support the allegation.
Khanna said that Baroni and Wildstein had “bragged” about the lane closure scheme to the governor at a 9/11 commemoration ceremony in New York City, just two days after traffic had begun to choke the streets of Fort Lee. The three were said to have been photographed together at the event.
“The opening statement is one of the most important events in a criminal trial because the lawyers stake out in concrete for the jury their factual positions,” Joe Hayden, a veteran attorney with over 45 years’ experience presiding over federal cases in New Jersey, told NJ Spotlight. “Any statements made in the openings is not a slip of the tongue because lawyers think long and hard on the words they’re going to use and the facts they’re going to emphasize.”
Other observers of the day's proceedings noted the significance of Christie’s stature in the opening arguments. Bridget Harrison, a professor of politics and law at Montclair State University, said that the remarks seem to indicate that more than one witness has alleged Christie was aware of the lane closings as they happened — a fact that would greatly complicate the governor’s earlier comments on the issue. She also noted that it would contradict the “Mastro Report,” a taxpayer-funded investigation conducted by the law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher in 2014 that cleared Christie of wrongdoing in the controversy.
“That is in direct contradiction to not only the story that he has told the media, but the story that he told the people of New Jersey back on January 9 of 2014,” Harrison said. “And I think that revelation is the most important thing to come out of these opening statements because there appears to be a consistency between two separate accounts of the incident. And they’re people with different agendas, different legal implications, telling what appears to be a consistent story.”
State Senator Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) were both present at the trial and had similar takeaways from the prosecution’s argument. On the steps outside the courthouse following the hearing, Weinberg said that she thought the prosecution seemed to be putting the governor’s office, and perhaps the governor, “smack in the middle of all this.” Wisniewski, who serves as the chairman of the Assembly Transportation committee and presided over its early investigations into the Port Authority in 2014, added that the defense’s testimony on the bistate agency — which it called a “patronage pit” — also intrigued him.
“We’ve all dealt with the frustration of the Port Authority not being operated with for the correct reasons, but to hear it discussed in open court by the two defense attorneys talking about how the Port Authority is truly a patronage pit, a wasteful operation, really underscores the work that the Senator and I have been doing to try to reform it, which is how this whole investigation started out,” Wisniewski said.
The ranking Democrat, who is considering a gubernatorial run to succeed Christie in 2017, suggested the new information about Christie’s knowledge of the scheme might be grounds to reconvene the legislature’s Select Committee on Investigations, which both he and Weinberg chaired.
There were other ways attorneys argued for and against the accused. Baroni’s own defense sought to add “context evidence” to the story, painting the former assemblyman and state senator as a victim of the political bureaucracy that critics have accused the Port Authority of harboring in recent years. And Kelly’s defense lawyers were quick to argue her own blameless in the scheme, saying she had been used by other people with more “grandiose agendas” -— namely, Christie’s “embryonic” presidential campaign.
Both tried to cast Wildstein, who prosecutors said would testify on his own behalf in the trial, as a “malicious” villain, bent on manipulating those around him. They rattled off a list of names others have used to label the operative, including “bizarre,” a “miserable prick,” and an “asshole.”
The trial continues today in front of U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton. Sokolich, Fort Lee Police Chief Keith Bendul, and Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye are expected to testify. Foye, who Baldassare yesterday called “the kind of guy who comes to a picnic with a lighter and a bucket of water so he can start the fire and then put it out," was the first at the bistate agency to order the reopening of lanes back in 2013.