NEWARK, N.J. – The Bridgegate trial has been ongoing for the past six weeks. On Thursday, an unexpected bump in the road came just prior to what was believed would be the start of closing statements from the attorneys. Citing a “legal issue” judge Susan D. Wigenton adjourned court early, pushing the much-anticipated verdict back.
The U.S. Federal District Court in Newark has been full of activity for much of the trial. In Wigenton’s courtroom, benches are regularly packed shoulder-to-shoulder by reporters, sketch artists, attorneys and members of the general public eager to be there as the proceedings unfold. Many are often pushed down the hall into an overflow room where the proceedings develop on video screens. At the front of the courtroom, an L-shaped table seats defendants Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly with their respective teams of lawyers. Three attorneys from the U.S. attorney’s office have worked on the case and take turns questioning witnesses.
While the Bridgegate trial started six weeks ago, the saga of the closed lanes of the George Washington Bridge started in September 2013. At that time, defendant Baroni was the Deputy Executive Director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Co-defendant Kelly was the Deputy Chief of Staff for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Both defendants are facing charges that they conspired to close the so-called “local access lanes” typically sectioned off during the morning commute to provide bridge access to those commuters who travel through Fort Lee and from surrounding towns into New York. According to prosecutors, those lanes were closed as an act of political retribution against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for a failure to endorse Governor Christie for re-election in 2013. Both Kelly and Baroni deny that they had any involvement in the scheme. Both squarely lay the blame on the prosecution’s star witness: former Director of Interstate Capital Projects for the Port Authority David Wildstein.
When court proceedings started on September 20, prosecutors first called in the Fort Lee Police Chief Keith Bendul, Mayor Sokolich, Port Authority Executive Director Pay Foye and Tina Lado, the Director of Government Community Relations dedicated to interfacing with New Jersey officials about Port Authority projects and the impacts they will have on residents and commuters. The prosecution also called on Matt Mowers, a former employee of the governor’s office who worked under Kelly, to testify. Those testimonies helped to paint the picture of what was happening at the Port Authority at the time of the closures, how Port matters often went to the governor’s office for approval and how the governor’s office staff often sought out endorsements for Christie on a volunteer basis.
Things got particularly interesting on September 26, the day that Wildstein began his eight-day testimony and cross-examination. While he was on the stand, Wildstein reiterated claims that Baroni and Kelly were central figures in the lane closures and that they did so with the intent of punishing Sokolich. As evidence, prosecutors presented e-mail exchanges between Wildstein and Baroni and Wildstein and Kelly. They also asked Wildstein about his personal relationships with the two alleged conspirators. According to Wildstein, Baroni was one of the “best friends [he] ever had.” While Wildstein claimed that he was not as personally close with Kelly, he did say that the two often had joking banter, something that was reinforced by e-mail exchanges between the two.
While Governor Christie was not called to testify, his name has been regularly invoked during Bridgegate proceedings. Whether or not one believes claims like those made by both Kelly and Wildstein that the governor knew of the lane realignment (a claim which his office vehemently denies), the governor has come out of the trial rather unflatteringly. During Kelly’s testimony, she claimed that the governor regularly spoke to her in a profane way and “scared” her. She even said that he once threw a water bottle that hit her on the arm because he disliked a suggestion she made regarding an event with local business leaders following a 2013 boardwalk fire in Seaside Park.
Another Bridgegate figure who has come out unsympathetically is Baroni. While he maintains his innocence, Baroni’s legislative testimony has come to be one of the most difficult things for his defense attorney, Michael Baldassare, to work around. In that testimony, given in November 2013, Baroni claimed that leaders from the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association asked the Port to look into a safety issue on the George Washington Bridge. He claimed that that request spawned the “traffic study” that would later be reveled to be a cover-up for Wildstein’s admitted scheme to close the lanes. While Baroni said during his testimony that he made that claim at the hearing because Wildstein told him it was factual, it has been denied by both Paul Nunziato, Port Authority PBA president, and Mike DeFillipis, PBA vice president. Also, his close friendship with Wildstein (which outdates the time either worked at the Port Authority) makes it seem unlikely that Wildstein would have failed to confide in Baroni on this matter when Baroni attested to the fact that the self-proclaimed mastermind behind the lane closures had confided in him in the past and regularly included him in family gatherings. Additionally, Baroni was Wildstein’s superior at the bi-state agency at the time of the closures.
Kelly’s attorney, Michael Critchley, based much of his argument on painting Kelly as a sympathetic figure outside of the inner circle of “Christie World” at the time of the closures. He reminded jurors that Kelly is a single mother of four, brought in character witnesses including Kelly’s former boss Assemblyman David Russo to attest to her honesty and trustworthiness and reminded jurors that Kelly was new to her deputy chief of staff position at the time of the lane closures. Even so, the jury will have to weigh in on evidence from Kelly including the now-infamous “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” e-mail that she sent to Wildstein in August 2013, one month before the lane closures. Kelly said that her use of “traffic problems” was simply parroting back what Wildstein had regularly told her during his time at the Port Authority about what the agency often dealt with. She also said that much of her communication on the lane closures was misrepresented, something that has “bothered” her since her alleged role in the lane closures was first reported.
Some of the governor’s closest confidants including former Press Secretary Mike Drewniak and political strategist Mike DuHaime were called to testify. However, other notable members of Christie’s “inner circle” including former Chief of Staff Kevin O’Dowd and former campaign manager Bill Stepien have not given testimony. According to Kelly, many of those in the governor’s office including Christie, O’Dowd and Stepien knew of the lane closures. She said that, in December 2013, when the governor denied any knowledge by him or his staff, it appeared that many were having “memory issues” on the matter and that “nothing was adding up.” One of the most lingering questions of the Bridgegate ordeal is who knew what and when.
On Tuesday, reports confirmed that while the motive to punish Sokolich has been at the crux of proceedings, the motive behind the lane closures will not need to be proven. During her Wednesday charging of the jury, Wigenton confirmed those claims, informing the jury that they must rule on whether or not Kelly and Baroni “misused” Port Authority resources and funds, not on motive.
With closing statements and a verdict still to come, it is unknown how the Bridgegate matter will unfold. Barring another setback like the “legal issue” faced on Thursday, attorneys should begin closing statements on Friday. The jury will likely begin deliberation next week.