LAW & PUBLIC SAFETY

Bridgegate History: From Lane Closures to Trial

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

“I worked the cones, actually,” said Gov. Chris Christie Dec. 2, 2013.

No, he didn’t work the cones. He wasn’t even indicted. But witnesses testified a singular agenda promoting Christie’s political ambitions inspired the Bridgegate scandal three years ago when the world’s busiest bridge strangled for five days in a traffic jam — so infamous it inspired a Springsteen jam.

Bridgegate’s self-confessed mastermind, David Wildstein — Christie’s enforcer at the Port Authority — testified he only did it to benefit Christie, his so-called “Constituent of One”.

“My job was to advance Gov. Christie’s agenda … and to be very aggressive,” he said.

And so Bridgegate evolved in August of 2013, when Wildstein told Christie’s deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly about his cunning lane closure scheme — to make Christie look like a hero by improving traffic flow. Kelly pursued endorsements for the governor and ran his Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. She testified Christie green-lighted Wildstein’s plot Aug. 12 and the next day, Kelly pulled the trigger on Bridgegate’s smoking gun email: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

“Got it,” Wildstein replied. Whether it was a just rogue traffic study or calculated political payback, Bridgegate was in malevolent motion, with Wildstein at the wheel and Fort Lee dead ahead.

“Oh, I got caught in it for three hours! Are you kidding?” said Oumar Nabe.

Port Authority cops moved the cones Sept. 9 — the first day of school — cutting Fort Lee’s access to the GWB down from three lanes to one. Traffic and motorists snarled for hours. Fort Lee’s frantic Mayor Mark Sokolich repeatedly called, texted and emailed Kelly’s Bridgegate co-defendant Bill Baroni — he was Christie’s lieutenant at the PA and its deputy executive director. But Baroni never answered — maintaining “radio silence” he said at Wildstein’s urging.

On 9/11 as officials gathered at the Ground Zero memorial, photos showed Christie with Wildstein and Baroni. Wildstein claimed the governor was updated right there about the traffic study scheme, how it continued to confound both local bridge traffic and Fort Lee’s mayor. On Sept. 12, Kelly says, she told Christie about Mayor Sokolich’s claims the closures were political retribution for not endorsing Christie. The governor’s reply, as reported from the trial testimony:

“It’s the Port Authority’s project,” she said Christie answered. “Let Wildstein handle it.”

Fort Lee’s bridge access agony ended Sept. 13 after complaints reached Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye. He ordered the lanes re-opened and they stayed open, despite furious, expletive-laced efforts by Christie’s New Jersey operatives to shut them down again. By now, media outlets demanded answers. Then the Legislature got involved. The Transportation Committee called Port Authority officials to testify and on Nov. 25, Baroni used charts to explain the cover story about a traffic study of Fort Lee access lanes to deeply skeptical lawmakers.

“Every one of you on this committee has people in your communities who sit in longer traffic every day because of the special lanes for Fort Lee,” Baroni said.

“Why now? Why September? What transpired to have somebody say we ought look at having less lanes for Fort Lee?” asked Assemblyman John Wisniewski.

While Baroni testified, Christie’s Port Authority liaison texted the governor and both later deleted those texts. By late November, Christie’s top aides testified they were speculating who knew what and when. Yet, on Dec. 2, when reporter Matt Katz asked Christie if he knew, he said, “I worked the cones, actually, Matt. Unbeknownst to everybody, I was actually the guy out there. I was in overalls and a hat, but I actually was the guy working the cones out there. You really are not serious with that question.”

But by Dec. 6 — what Kelly called “Christie world” — had started to unravel over Bridgegate. Wildstein resigned. Political advisor Mike DuHaime told the governor Kelly and former IGA boss Bill Stepien knew about the lane closures. On Dec. 13, Christie announced Baroni’s resignation and appointed Deborah Gramiccioni to the post. But even as the governor stood there, insisting he and his senior staff knew nothing about the lane closures, aide Christina Renna incredulously texted campaign staff, “He just flat-out lied…”

On Jan. 8, 2014, political lightning struck: the Legislature released a raft of emails, including Bridget Kelly’s smoking gun: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

The next day: “I come out here today to apologize to the people of New Jersey. I apologize to the people of Fort Lee,” Christie said.

Christie held a marathon State House news conference, announcing he had canned Kelly.

“I am embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team. There’s no doubt in my mind that the conduct that they exhibited is completely unacceptable,” he said.

Christie apologized for failing to understand the true nature of the problem and insisted he had no knowledge of the scheme. The Legislature launched special committees to investigate Bridgegate on Jan. 13. Sen. Loretta Weinberg repeated her prior warning to Christie’s chief of staff.

“Tell the governor I am not backing off on this and it really is time for him to get to the bottom of it,” Weinberg said.

The Tonight Show parody aired a day later.

“One! Two! Three! Four! The highway’s jammed with pissed off drivers with no place left to go!”

Around the same time, Gov. Christie hired former federal Prosecutor Randy Mastro of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher to conduct an internal review of the scandal and on March 27, Mastro released a report that blamed Wildstein and Bridget Kelly and exonerated everyone else.

“We found that Gov. Christie had no knowledge beforehand of this George Washington Bridge realignment idea,” Mastro said. “We further found no evidence that anyone in the governor’s office besides Bridget Kelly knew of this in advance or played any role in the decision or implementation of it.”

On March 28, Christie’s long time mentor and his highest-ranking official at the Port Authority, David Samson, resigned amid state and federal investigations into the agency. On April 4, a federal grand jury began hearing testimony into a criminal investigation of the lane closings. It later subpoenaed records from the legislative committee. But Christie predicted on May 14 that Bridgegate would not alter his political trajectory.

“I think this will be a footnote by the time any of those decisions need to be made,” he said.

Then, on May 1 of 2015, the hammer fell. David Wildstein pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy before federal court Judge Susan Wigenton in Newark and turned state’s evidence. Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni were both indicted as part of a conspiracy with political motivations.

“The indictment alleges, and Mr. Wildstein’s admitted, that he and Baroni and Kelly executed a plan to suddenly and without warning drastically reduce the number of local access lanes to the bridge, knowing full well and intending that this maneuver would gridlock Fort Lee,” said U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman.

But Christie was not implicated and two months later, declared he was running for president: “This is your country, too. We are going to go and win this election, and I love each and every one of you!”

Bridgegate pre-trial motions attracted increased news coverage. On Dec. 16, Judge Wigenton ripped the $8 million Mastro Report’s authors for destroying interview notes, calling it “opacity and gamesmanship.” On Feb. 10, 2016, after a sixth-place finish in the New Hampshire primary, Christie spoke: “Mary Pat and I spoke tonight and we’ve decided that we’re going to go home to New Jersey tomorrow and we’re going to take a deep breath.”

Christie ultimately decided to end his presidential bid and on Feb. 26, endorsed Donald Trump. According to the New York Post, Trump initially offered Christie the much-coveted VP slot July 12, but then yanked the offer, reportedly afraid “Christie’s Bridgegate troubles would sink the campaign.”

Political analyst Matthew Hale observed, “Any time you say Bridgegate it hurts Chris Christie and it doesn’t matter what the context is.”

Jury selection in the Bridgegate trial began Sept. 13 — three years to the day after Fort Lee’s local access lanes to the GWB re-opened. The trial finally started Sept. 19 and despite testimony from several top aides that Christie was told about the lane closures before, during and after they occurred, the governor has continued to insist that he knew nothing about it.