Five Things We Still Don’t Know About the George Washington Bridge Lane Closure Scandal
After six weeks of trial in federal court in Newark, we know more than ever about the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal. Testimony from 34 witnesses, supported by hundreds of excerpts from emails, text messages, documents and video recordings, has created a picture in which public officials wielded control over state resources to encourage or intimidate local officials into supporting Governor Christie.
Bridget Anne Kelly, the governor’s former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, Christie’s top executive at the Port Authority, are accused of conspiring to reduce access from Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge in an attempt to punish the borough’s mayor for not endorsing Christie. The lane reductions, which began on Sept. 9 2013, caused gridlock over five mornings, severely delaying motorists, school buses and emergency vehicles.
Although not charged or called as a witness in the case, Christie’s power over his staff has been brought up at almost every turn in the case, by both the prosecution and defense.
Already, David Wildstein, who has been portrayed as Christie’s eyes, ears and enforcer at the Port Authority, has pleaded guilty to the scheme and has testified that he was knowingly aided by Baroni and Kelly. Wildstein was the recipient of the now infamous email sent by Kelly: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
The government, in four hours of closing arguments on Friday, sought to portray Kelly and Baroni, as Christie’s “loyal lieutenants” who used their power to punish political targets. Baroni’s attorney spent two hours Friday reinforcing the notion that Wildstein is a liar, Christie is a bully and Baroni a dupe who trusted his friends and colleagues.
On Monday, the closing argument from Kelly’s attorney is expected with the jury anticipated to get the case on Tuesday.
Still, after all the testimony, several large questions remain unanswered.
Why Fort Lee?
Prosecutors say that Kelly, the governor’s former deputy chief of staff, conspired with Port Authority officials to create gridlock in Fort Lee to punish the town’s mayor for refusing to endorse Christie’s 2013 re-election. But we also know that, privately, Mayor Mark Sokolich was supportive of the governor. Sokolich’s chief reasons for withholding his endorsement of the Republican governor were that he feared it could damage his political career as a Democrat and that it could hurt his business as a zoning attorney who regularly appears before Democratic zoning boards.
Christie’s allies kept a spreadsheet of local Democratic officials’ likelihood of endorsing the governor. On a scale from one to 10, where a 10 indicated an endorsement, they gave Sokolich a four. They had little reason to think he would endorse and they seemed to have little reason to punish him.
What did Bill Baroni and David Wildstein discuss with Christie on Sept. 11, 2013?
Two days after the lane closures began, Baroni and Wildstein had a private conversation with the governor at the 9/11 memorial ceremony at the World Trade Center site. But there are four differing accounts of the substance of that conversation.
- Wildstein, who has pleaded guilty to the conspiracy, told the court that Baroni bragged to Christie about “a tremendous amount of traffic in Fort Lee” and that Sokolich’s frantic calls for help were not being answered.
- Baroni, who maintains his innocence, testified that Wildstein – who ostensibly reported to Baroni at the Port Authority — did the talking, telling the governor that the Port Authority was conducting a study that was intended to speed up traffic entering the bridge from Route 95.
- Kelly told jurors that after the governor returned from the 9/11 event, he told her that Wildstein had informed him about traffic problems in Fort Lee related to a traffic study and that the Port Authority was dealing with it.
- Christie denies that the three discussed the lane closures at all.
Who are the unindicted co-conspirators?
Before the trial began, the prosecution created a list of people it believed took part in the conspiracy but who could not be charged because of a lack of evidence. A group of media outlets, including the publisher of The Record, requested a copy of the list, which was granted by the federal judge overseeing the case.
But one of the men on the list intervened, anonymously, at the last minute to block the list’s release. A federal appeals court ruled in his favor in September, saying that the identities of the co-conspirators should not be divulged, unless they came out during the trial.
Since the trial began on Sept. 19, plenty of speculation has occurred over their identities, but no one has been named as a co-conspirator. All we do know, according to a transcript of a sidebar conference on Sept. 27, is that Port Authority Police Benevolent Association president, Paul Nunziato, was not on the list.
What was Bill Stepien’s role in all of this?
Like Christie, Bill Stepien has been one of the phantoms of this story, frequently invoked in the courtroom but never appearing in person.
Stepien — now Donald Trump’s national field director — was Kelly’s boss and mentor in the governor’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. The office was supposed to liaise with local officials, but as the trial has shown, the office was deeply politicized under Stepien’s watch.
Staffers doled out Port Authority grants, contracts and access to the World Trade Center construction site in the hope of securing Democratic endorsements for Christie’s 2013 gubernatorial run.
On Stepien’s orders, local officials who didn’t comply were deliberately frozen out.
When Stepien left the office, in April 2013, to run Christie’s re-election campaign, Kelly took over. But as emails and text messages showed, Kelly continued to have contact with Stepien regarding endorsements and the punishment of local officials.
Wildstein testified that he told Stepien about the lane closure plot in advance and that when Stepien asked what “cover story” he would use, Wildstein said it would be that the closures were part of a traffic study.
Stepien’s lawyer, Kevin Marino, told The Record: “The government conducted an exhaustive investigation of IGA as part of its 16-month Bridgegate investigation and did not charge Mr. Stepien with wrongdoing of any kind.”
Although Stepien is not a defendant or even a witness at the trial, Marino has been a regular observer at the courthouse over the past six weeks. Does Baroni still believe the lane reductions were part of a legitimate traffic study?
Baroni said that he was duped by Wildstein into going along with the lane closures in September 2013 because Wildstein convinced him they were part of a legitimate plan to increase traffic flow over the bridge.
Baroni told the court that in late November, when he testified before a legislative committee probing the lane reductions, he still believed that the closures were part of a legitimate traffic study. But Port Authority traffic and engineering experts testified at trial that the lane reductions did not remotely resemble the agency’s usual practice of altering traffic patterns or of conducting studies.
Baroni’s defense relies heavily on the idea that Baroni was tricked by his Machiavellian underling, Wildstein.
U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton stopped the trial last week to ask Baroni’s defense lawyers, out of earshot of the jury, whether Baroni still believes the lane reductions were legitimate and, if not, when he came to that conclusion.
According to a transcript of the sidebar conversation, which took place with the prosecution and defense on Oct. 19, Baroni’s defense lawyers declined to be drawn on whether Baroni has ever believed the study was not genuine.
Wigenton promised not to ask the question herself. “I’m just saying,” she added, “it’s something I’m wondering.”