Christie, Wildstein at center of Bridgegate trial’s opening day
NEWARK – Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly are finally standing trial for their roles in Bridgegate – but it was apparent from the opening statements delivered by attorneys as the trial started Monday that so is David Wildstein, even though he has already pleaded guilty.
Gov. Chris Christie will also be a frequent feature in the federal trial, in which former top aides of the governor in Trenton and at the Port Authority are accused of disrupting traffic and causing a week of gridlock in 2013 to punish a Democratic mayor who wouldn’t endorse Christie’s re-election.
“This case in not only about facts – it’s about a presidential campaign,” said Kelly’s defense attorney Michael Critchley.
He reminded jurors Christie was considered the Republican frontrunner in 2013 and said his aides wanted to protect the governor but pinning the blame on Kelly: “They’re not going to let no one such as Bridget Kelly and nothing such as the truth get in the way.” He said they decided to “throw her under the presidential bus.”
One of the day’s biggest surprises was the revelation by defense attorney Michael Baldassare that Baroni had been an informant for the FBI from 2006 and 2010, as a member of the Legislature. He provided leads and information about lawmakers and lobbyists. At the time, Christie was U.S. attorney.
“They specifically found he was motivated because what he saw in Trenton made him sick,” said Baldassare of the FBI’s assessment of Baroni’s contributions.
Much of Assistant U.S. Attorney Vikas Khanna’s opening statement was familiar, at least to those who closely followed the legislative investigation and the federal charges announced almost a year and a half ago.
The “crushing traffic jam,” intentionally caused. The callous emails and texts, including one saying it was ‘time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee’ – and not “time for a traffic study,” Khanna said. The “radio silence” in which Baroni and Kelly ignored cries for help from Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich. Claims that the closures were actually a traffic study of a lane realignment.
“They lied to put their plans into action and lied to get away with it,” Khanna said.
One part was somewhat new, though, and could have lasting impact. Khanna said that when Baroni and Wildstein were with Christie during the lane closures, at the World Trade Center site before the 9/11 anniversary event, they told him what was happening in Fort Lee.
“Baroni and Wildstein were so committed to their plan that, during the precious moments they had alone with the governor, they bragged about the fact that there were traffic problems in Fort Lee and that Mayor Sokolich was not getting his calls returned,” Khanna said.
Wildstein has implied Christie knew, with his lawyer saying evidence exists Christie knew as the closures were going on. Photos of Wildstein and Baroni with Christie that morning were already public. Christie has said that if Wildstein mentioned Fort Lee traffic, it meant nothing to him and he doesn’t recall.
“Certainly both sides, both the defense and the prosecution, seem to be putting the Governor’s Office and perhaps the governor smack in the middle of all of this,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, who observed the trial’s opening day from the courtroom.
Wildstein was pilloried repeatedly, as was to be expected given that the former Port Authority executive’s testimony is key to the prosecution’s case. He pleaded guilty last year and faces up to 15 years in prison but is cooperating the government, which is likely to reduce his sentence.
“He’s trading scalps for time,” said Baroni’s defense attorney, Baldassare. “David Wildstein implicated so many people in this activity that it will boggle your mind. … They’re people at the highest levels of government in New Jersey and at the very top of the Port Authority.”
Wildstein engaged in a lot of political dirty tricks, did “a lot of bad things,” “shaded the truth,” “has lied” – and that’s just what Khanna, the federal prosecutor said. Knowing of his reputation, though, Kelly and Baroni still chose to work with him, Khannna said.
The depictions of Wildstein got brutal when defense attorneys had their say.
He’s “a vicious guy. He’s a bully.” He’s “maniacal,” has “a twisted mind.” He’s “crazy,” “a bizarre person,” “a habitual liar.” He was called vulgar names that had defense lawyers apologizing to jurors and U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton. It took 14 prep sessions for prosecutors to get him ready to face a grand jury. He stole Baroni’s computer’s hard drive when fired from the Port Authority.
“The government made a deal with the devil, and they’re stuck with him,” Baldassare said.
With Christie’s assistance, Wildstein arranged for the Port Authority to pay $240 million to Bayonne for land it didn’t really need at the former Military Ocean Terminal, to help the city dig out from a financial hole and curry favor with a mayor Christie’s team wanted an endorsement from come 2013, said Critchley. At Christie’s direction, Wildstein got Jerry Speziele to drop a Passaic County sheriff’s bid by getting him a job as Port Authority deputy police superintendent.
Baldassare said Christie referred to Wildstein as “his fixer” and joked that Wildstein was “his Mr. Wolf” – Winston Wolf from the movie Pulp Fiction, who helps dispose of a dead body and erase any evidence of the crime.
“He was Chris Christie’s cleaner,” Critchley said. “Those are words that didn’t come from David Wildstein’s mouth. They came from Chris Christie’s mouth.”
“When David Wildstein spoke, Gov. Christie’s voice came out and everyone knew it,” said Baldassare, likening him to a ventriloquist’s doll on Christie’s lap.
Enough tales were told about Wildstein that he seemed more like another movie character -- Keyser Söze from The Usual Suspects. He was depicted as pulling the strings on multiple conspiracies, striking fear into people and manipulating supposed friends.
He was said to having stolen Frank Lautenberg’s jacket at a 1982 U.S. Senate debate and took it home as a trophy. He cost a fellow Republican who wanted to run for local office his spot on the primary ballot by throwing his petition in the trash, rather than submit it to the township clerk. He secretly ran the website PolitickerNJ for a decade – and still has all the files to this day.
“A lot of people are terrified about what’s on those hard drives,” Baldassare said.
Khanna said Wildstein “took political direction” from Kelly and the Governor’s Office. Critchley said that’s nonsense and that Wildstein pitched the traffic alternation to Kelly as a logical traffic study that would undo a political deal struck decades ago.
“The idea that Bridget Kelly could instruct David Wildstein to do anything is absurd,” Critchley said.
Khanna said Wildstein always acted after getting Baroni’s approval; of the GWB lane closures, he said: “Baroni, he blessed it. He said, ‘Go ahead, let’s do it.’” Baldassare responded that that’s “demonstrably not accurate.”
Baldassare also said “it’s laughable” that Baroni brought Wildstein into the Port Authority, as Christie repeatedly has said. He said Christie sent Wildstein, in part because he was angry that Baroni was “considered weak” and hadn’t fired people from the Port Authority who needed to be let go.
Critchley concurred: “The governor personally put him there.”
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