Christie Aide Says Governor Knew of Jams, Prone to Outbursts
(Bloomberg) -- A former top aide to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie described him as an intimidating, obscenity-spewing boss who once threw a water bottle at her -- and who knew in advance of a plan to close access lanes to the George Washington Bridge that would snarl traffic in an adjacent town.
Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, testified at her criminal trial that she told the governor in August 2013 about an imminent traffic study that was expected to create “tremendous traffic problems” in Fort Lee. But she denied a key prosecution claim -- that she knew it was a plot to punish the borough’s mayor for not endorsing Christie’s re-election.
“I really saw it as I was giving him an FYI, and if he was not OK with it, he would have said, ‘No, that’s a bad idea,’” Kelly testified Friday in federal court in Newark. “I was scared that if I didn’t tell him what would happen. I would get blamed for something that I didn’t do.”
Christie has denied that he had any knowledge of a plot to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich and his spokesman on Friday reiterated that position.
“As the governor has said since Jan. 9, 2014, the governor had no knowledge prior to or during these lane realignments, and he had no role in authorizing them,” Brian Murray said in an e-mailed statement. “Anything said to the contrary is simply untrue.”
Kelly, 44, also said that Christie was given to profane outbursts, including one in September 2013, after a massive fire in Seaside Heights, on the Jersey Shore. When she suggested that Christie introduce his cabinet members at a public meeting to discuss the government’s response, Christie blew up, she said.
“He had a water bottle in his hand, and he said, ‘What do you think I am, a (expletive) game-show host,”’ Kelly said. She said he threw his water bottle, and while she tried to move out of the way, it hit her in the arm.
Kelly’s attorney Michael Critchley asked: “I guess you’re afraid of the governor?” She said yes and wept.
“He’s a big, tough guy?” Critchley said. Kelly said yes.
Kelly’s testimony broke her three-year silence on traffic jams in early September 2013 that mushroomed into a long-running scandal that helped doom Christie’s run for the Republican nomination for the White House.
She said she learned of the traffic study from David Wildstein, once a top executive at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, who suggested that it would improve the flow through the bridge, which is the world’s busiest span. Kelly said she told Christie about Wildstein’s idea to hold an event at the end of the traffic study with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to claim credit for reducing congestion for bridge commuters.
Christie responded with a reference to Wildstein’s pseudonym, Wally Edge, who in an earlier career blogged about politics, Kelly said. “Typical Wally," Christie said, according to Kelly.
The next day, Kelly said she wrote an e-mail to Wildstein that has come to symbolize the case. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” she wrote. “Got it,” responded Wildstein, who later pleaded guilty and testified as a prosecution witness.
Asked by her lawyer if she used a poor choice of words, she said: “Very.” Kelly said she was "parroting" language used by Wildstein. His testimony implicated Kelly and her co-defendant Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority, who are accused of conspiracy, fraud and civil rights violations in the bridge plot.
Wildstein testified earlier in the trial that calling the gridlock a traffic study was a cover story to mask the plot to punish the mayor. Wildstein told jurors that he and Baroni bragged to Christie during a Sept. 11 memorial service at the World Trade Center about the traffic in Fort Lee and how Sokolich wasn’t getting his phone calls returned. Wildstein said Baroni and Kelly agreed on “radio silence” during that week when Sokolich called, texted and e-mailed for answers.
After the Sept. 11 ceremony, Kelly said, Christie returned to the State House in Trenton and told her he had spoken to Wildstein about the traffic study. Kelly said she told Christie about Sokolich’s concerns that the traffic study was created “a safety issue.”
“The governor said that the Port Authority was handling it, that David had been in touch with Fort Lee, which is exactly what David had told me,” she said. She said she wasn’t surprised that Christie discussed the traffic study “because we had talked about it a month before.”
Kelly also described an incident involving Steven Fulop, the Democratic mayor of Jersey City. Fulop had considered endorsing Christie in 2013, but ultimately did not. Christie’s staff then canceled a series of high-level meetings with the mayor, she said. Christie asked Kelly the next day if she followed through.
“He didn’t even say hello and he said, ‘Did you cancel the meetings,”’ Kelly said. “And I said ‘Yes, governor.’ And he said, ‘No one’s entitled to a (expletive) meeting.” Her voice cracked as she recounted his outburst.
Kelly described Wildstein as "the person to go to for anything at the Port Authority," and she said he told her as early as 2011 that engineers were considering re-aligning access lanes to the bridge in Fort Lee.
Since the trial began on Sept. 19, Kelly’s attorney has sought to depict Wildstein as a liar who framed her while prosecutors failed to go after the true culprits -- Christie’s inner circle.
Kelly looked directly at jurors as Critchley took her through her life story, recounting how she worked for a Republican state assemblyman for 16 years and raised four children. She campaigned for Christie in 2009 and joined his administration after his election, raising her salary from $50,000 to $83,000.
Kelly helped to oversee the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs in Christie’s office, which wooed Democratic officials with gifts, favors and grants so that they would endorse Christie in 2013 and burnish his appeal as a bipartisan leader.
The case is U.S. v. Baroni, 15-cr-00193, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Newark).