NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - A political revenge scheme to create traffic gridlock near the George Washington Bridge in 2013 was approved by two former allies of Republican Gov. Chris Christie on trial for fraud and shared with Christie’s then-campaign manager, the government’s key witness testified Monday.
David Wildstein also told jurors how he received the now-famous “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email from Christie’s then-deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, on Aug. 13, 2013, about a month before the town next to the bridge was engulfed in four days of epic traffic jams.
Kelly, who is expected to testify in her defense, has previously said some of her emails and texts from that period were meant to be sarcastic and were taken out of context.
But Wildstein, a former official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who has pleaded guilty, told jurors Monday he assumed it meant it was time to put the scheme in action to punish Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich.
“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.”
According to Wildstein, the email set in motion a chain of events that ultimately led to last year’s indictment of Kelly and former Port Authority executive Bill Baroni on fraud, conspiracy and civil rights deprivation charges.
In the days and weeks that followed, he testified, he went to Port Authority officials and sold them the story that the lane realignment was part of a traffic study. But he said he told at least two people the true reason: Bill Stepien, Christie’s manager for his 2013 re-election campaign, and William “Pat” Schuber, a Port Authority commissioner nominated by Christie in 2011.
Schuber testified before a New Jersey legislative committee in 2014 that he had no prior knowledge of the plot.
Democratic state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, who co-chaired the committee, called Monday’s revelation “personally disappointing” and said Schuber should resign if Wildstein is telling the truth.
A message left for Schuber at the Port Authority wasn’t immediately returned Monday.
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 New Jersey 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.
Stepien’s attorney, Kevin Marino, said in a statement that prosecutors investigated for more than a year and didn’t charge his client. “That is because Mr. Stepien did not engage in any wrongdoing,” Marino said. He added that Stepien had not role in planning, approving or covering up the scheme.
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 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.
Wildstein is scheduled to return to the stand on Tuesday.
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