(Bloomberg) -- Patrick Foye, the head of the agency that runs the George Washington Bridge, testified that he believed employee David Wildstein was the “culprit” behind four days of access lane closings in 2013 but was protected from questioning by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
Foye testified for a second day at the trial of Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, once the deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, the bridge agency. They are accused of creating traffic gridlock near the bridge to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, for failing to back Christie’s re-election in 2013.
Their attorneys sought to portray the bi-state Port Authority as dysfunctional and riven with political infighting between appointees of Christie, a Republican, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat.
Kelly’s lawyer, Michael Critchley, asked Foye why he didn’t question Wildstein during an internal investigation he conducted after the lane closings. Foye said Wildstein was “abusive and untrustworthy,” and he didn’t believe he’d “get to the truth” if questioned.
“You didn’t interview him because you couldn’t?” Critchley asked in federal court in Newark on Thursday. “He was protected by Chris Christie, correct?” Foye answered, “Yes.”
Defense attorneys spent the day using Foye and another witness to hammer at the character and credibility of Wildstein, who pleaded guilty to his role in the plot and will testify as the key government witness. The lawyers called Wildstein an “evil mastermind” who was an intimidating force for Christie.
Foye said that Wildstein “terrorized people,” tried to tap the phones of co-workers and was hated by “hundreds and thousands” of people at the agency.
They suggested that Foye, a Cuomo appointee and executive director of the Port Authority, ended the lane closings to be a “hero” but then lied to the public for months about what happened.
Critchley focused on how Foye admitted he authorized a false press release saying the lane closings were part of a week-long traffic study, as Baroni and Wildstein pushed him to do. By doing so, the lawyers suggested, Foye sought to protect the interests of the “New York side” of the agency, such as a port terminal in Red Hook, New York, from opposition by the “New Jersey side.”
Critchley seeks to show jurors that Kelly believed the Port Authority’s news release saying the closings were part of a traffic study.
He pressed Foye on why he didn’t fire Wildstein if he was so untrustworthy.
“It was complicated,” Foye said.
“Politically complicated,” Critchley asked.
Foye’s chief of staff, John Ma, also testified on Thursday, describing a call he had on the fourth day of the traffic jams with John Cichowski, a Bergen Record reporter who called before printing the first story about the debacle. That story included the false explanation that it was part of a traffic study.
“I told him off-the-record that to my knowledge there was no traffic study, and the lane closures had been ordered by David Wildstein,” Ma said. “I wanted the reporter to ask follow-up questions and alert him to my belief that there was no traffic study.”
Ma also described a meeting he had with Foye and Baroni on the day that the director reversed the lane closures. He said Baroni was “a little agitated” and apologized to Foye, saying “my bad, my bad.”
But “he went on to ask Pat to reverse his decision,” Ma said. “Pat said no. Mr. Baroni said this is important to Trenton. This is important to senior people in Trenton, which is shorthand for the New Jersey governor’s office. He said Trenton might call Albany. Pat responded, ‘Go ahead, I’m not reversing this.’ He said, ‘I’m not going to have someone die in the back of an ambulance, not on my watch.”’