Key bridge case witness: ‘Traffic problems’ email no joke
NEWARK — The government's key witness in the George Washington Bridge lane-closing case testified Monday that he interpreted an email from one of the defendants that it was "time for some traffic problems" as an order to put a political revenge plot into action and that he immediately told Gov. Chris Christie's campaign manager.
David Wildstein worked for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency that operates New York-area bridges, tunnels, ports and airports. He pleaded guilty last year to conspiring to cause traffic gridlock near the bridge to punish Fort Lee's Democratic mayor for not endorsing the Republican governor.
Bridget Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff, has claimed the email from mid-August 2013 was a joke, but Wildstein testified Monday that he didn't take it as one.
"I understood that to mean it was time to change the lanes configuration at the upper level of the George Washington Bridge in order to create traffic in the borough of Fort Lee," Wildstein said. "We had had joking emails before. I did not think she was joking."
Wildstein also said he told Christie's campaign manager, Bill Stepien, about the plot within 24 hours of that email and told him that he would create a traffic study as a cover story.
The government contends that a month later, Wildstein, Kelly and Port Authority executive Bill Baroni put the plan into action and caused four days of traffic jams. Wildstein testified Monday that both defendants approved the plan, and approved his idea not to respond to complaints once traffic jams started.
Wildstein also testified when he suggested to Baroni the idea of timing the gridlock to coincide with the first day of school, Baroni smiled and said, "Fantastic."
Baroni and Kelly are on trial on fraud, conspiracy and civil rights counts. Christie hasn't been charged, but prosecutors say Wildstein will testify that he told the governor about the plot on the third of the four days of traffic chaos. Christie has denied that.
Both defendants say Wildstein conceived and carried out the scheme in September 2013. The bridge, one of the world's busiest, spans the Hudson River and connects Fort Lee with New York City.
Last week, Wildstein testified that Christie's office used the Port Authority as a source of political favors for local Democratic officials whose endorsements were sought for his 2013 re-election. Christie wound up winning easily.
Wildstein said Christie and Stepien were among those who discussed the strategy at a meeting about Christie's re-election.
Christie cut ties with Stepien in January 2014 after emails released by a state legislative panel showed him referring to Fort Lee's mayor as an "idiot." Stepien had just been selected to run the state Republican party and had been in line to run what became Christie's failed presidential campaign.
He now works for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's campaign, along with another former Christie aide who testified Friday, Matt Mowers.
Stepien's attorney, Kevin Marino, didn't immediately return a message seeking comment on Wildstein's testimony.
Marino has said Stepien told Christie in mid-December 2013 that he was advised beforehand that the lane changes were for a traffic study and was one of many "crazy ideas" brought to him by Wildstein. Christie told reporters the following day that no one close to him had prior knowledge of the operation.
Kelly and Baroni have pleaded not guilty and say the government has twisted federal law to turn their actions into crimes. They also have said other people with more power and influence were involved in the lane closures but aren't being prosecuted.
Mowers, a former Christie campaign staffer who worked with Kelly in early 2013, testified last week that Kelly's office kept a spreadsheet noting what favors mayors had received and, on a scale from 1 to 10, their likelihood of endorsing Christie.
Prosecutors say Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, one of the Democratic mayors who declined to endorse Christie, was the target of the traffic jam scheme in September 2013. Sokolich's score on the scale was a 4.
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