A bridge too far? Trial reinforces New Jersey’s poor image
NEWARK -- If the state that brought you Abscam (fake sheikhs bribing politicians), Bid Rig (rabbis laundering money, more bribes to politicians) and other instances of political corruption was looking for an image makeover, this was not it.
Testimony in the George Washington Bridge lane-closing trial began in September with descriptions of profane tirades and moved swiftly through accounts of physical threats, petty infighting and an often stunning disregard for ethical boundaries.
Just business as usual in New Jersey politics, starting with Republican Gov. Chris Christie, if the testimony is to be believed.
The tough-guy posturing often has seemed to come straight out of a classic gangster movie or the New Jersey-based series "The Sopranos." But not everyone is laughing at the occasionally crude, often unseemly revelations that seemed to spill forth each day in U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton's courtroom.
"We're not joking around here," said Democratic state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, who co-chaired a legislative committee probing the lane closures in 2014. "It's crass, it's bullying, it's disgusting. And it's at every level, every place you look in this case."
A jury began its first full day of deliberations Tuesday after six weeks of testimony.
It seemed hardly a day went by without someone's testimony lending credence to Christie's critics' view of him as an unrepentant bully.
Bridget Kelly -- Christie's former deputy chief of staff, who is on trial on charges she conspired to cause traffic jams to punish a Democratic mayor who didn't support Christie's 2013 re-election bid -- testified the governor threw a water bottle at her after she suggested he make opening comments at a briefing after a boardwalk fire in 2013.
"What do you think I am, a f------ game show host?" Kelly said Christie snarled before throwing the bottle, which hit her on the arm.
One of Kelly's staffers described Christie leaving an angry voicemail for a county official saying he would "f------ destroy" him if he didn't show up to a post-Superstorm Sandy event the governor was holding. (Full disclosure: The official had used profane language about Christie's weight problem in a voicemail to staffers.)
Former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey executive Bill Baroni, on trial for the same charges as Kelly, testified Christie indirectly threatened his job if Baroni didn't call a firemen's union official who had criticized Christie and tell him the governor said "to `Go "f" yourself."'
The tone appears to have rubbed off on Christie's subordinates, even if their threats were mostly bluster. His press secretary wrote in an email of wanting to hit a local newspaper columnist with a lead pipe. Baroni testified David Samson, a close adviser to Christie who chaired the powerful Port Authority, told him to punch in the face another Port Authority official who had been harshly critical of the lane closures.
David Wildstein, the government's star witness who pleaded guilty last year, was a political blogger and former high school classmate of Christie's who was given a job created for him at the Port Authority. He testified that Christie's office used the agency, which controls bridges, tunnels, ports, airports and the World Trade Center, for political favors to Democratic politicians whose endorsements it sought. Among the goodies were pieces of steel from the original World Trade Center, destroyed on Sept. 11.
Christie called him "Mr. Wolf," Wildstein told the jury, referring to the character from Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" who is called in to clean up problems, usually involving dead bodies.
A former Port Authority colleague testified Wildstein was considered a "cancer" at the agency and was known for intimidating employees, leading some to quit.
Revelations about the lane closures in late 2013 and early 2014 prompted the Port Authority, already facing criticism over steep toll hikes at its bridges and tunnels, to begin a lengthy self-evaluation that continues today. The agency has enacted internal reforms to try to lessen political influence in its decision-making and has taken steps to become more transparent about how it spends its money.
A similar soul-searching doesn't appear to have occurred in New Jersey politics.
"There's a lack of outrage we're seeing among many legislators," said Brigid Callahan Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University. "They'll express outrage in front of the cameras, but when push comes to shove, we're not seeing any remedial action. The revelations are shocking, but it's almost like, `Let's move on."'
Testimony that has contradicted Christie's account of when he found out about the lane closures, and the descriptions of the Port Authority being used as a campaign tool, spurred talk of New Jersey's Democrat-controlled Legislature possibly seeking impeachment proceedings against the governor.
That is unlikely to happen despite the fact the standard for convening impeachment hearings is far lower than that for bringing a criminal indictment, Harrison said.
"The reality is it's not in Democrats' best interest to hold impeachment hearings," she said, "because they want to run against his legacy in 2017."
(Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)