A former employee at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey and Gov. Chris Christie’s “enforcer” said a politically motivated closing of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in 2013 was his idea.
David Wildstein testified Monday that he was first to see that the lane closures would be a “leverage point” to pressure Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, into supporting Republican Christie’s re-election bid that year.
Wildstein, the government’s star witness at the trial of two Christie allies, said the idea first came to him during a meeting at the bridge in 2011 when he noticed that traffic moved faster at three lanes set aside years earlier for local drivers.
“I noticed that those lanes were moving more quickly than the other lanes, and I immediately thought that they could be a potential leverage point with Mayor Sokolich down the road,” said Wildstein, who pleaded guilty to his role in the lane closures.
Defense lawyers have described Wildstein as Christie’s “enforcer” at the Port Authority who falsely implicated Bill Baroni, the Port Authority’s former deputy executive director, and Christie’s former deputy chief of Staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, to please prosecutors and help avoid a possible 15-year prison term. Kelly and Baroni face as many as 20 years on the most serious charges, which include conspiracy and civil-rights violations.
Wildstein testified that he discussed with Baroni and Kelly the use of closing lanes as leverage, and the plot got underway after he got an e-mail on Aug. 12, 2013 from Kelly. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote in the e-mail, which jurors saw. “Got it,” Wildstein replied.
Wildstein told jurors that he spoke with Kelly for 16 minutes later that day. “I established in that call that this was something Miss Kelly wanted done. I told her Mr. Baroni was informed, and he is on board as well.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes asked Wildstein why Kelly wanted to take the action. “She told me the reason was to send Mayor Sokolich a message.”
She said the mayor “needed to fully understand that life would be more difficult for him in the second Christie term than the first.” Wildstein said he never asked Kelly whether she got approval from her superiors in the governor’s office for the plan.
Wildstein also testified that he told Christie’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, about the plot. He told jurors that Stepien asked him what story he would use to cover his tracks, and Wildstein said he replied that he would “create the cover of a traffic study.”
Stepien also asked Wildstein to keep him updated through Kelly about the lane closings, rather than contacting him directly. Stepien is now national field director for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
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