POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

Former Christie Press Secretary Takes the Stand in Bridgegate Trial

By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent

Gov. Chris Christie has a date to appear in a county court in connection with the Bridgegate scandal. Last week, a Bergen County judge ruling on a citizens complaint based on trial testimony saw probable cause to conclude official misconduct by the governor did occur and that an official misconduct complaint against him could move forward. The governor’s office denies Christie’s involvement in the lane closures and planned to appeal. The governor’s court date is Nov. 23.

When the scandal broke Christie laid much of the blame for Bridgegate on his Former Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly. In the Bridgegate trial it’s her turn to mount a defense. Cameras are not allowed in federal courtrooms but our Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron was there.

Aron: Mary Alice, Bridget Kelly’s defense team began its case today.

As its first witness, it called Michael Drewniak, Christie’s former press secretary.

Through his questioning, Defense Attorney Michael Critchley got Drewniak to discuss how quickly concern about the GWB lane shutdowns spread through the upper echelons of the governor’s office.

The lanes, remember, were closed the week of Sept. 9 to 13, 2013.

On Sept. 17, a Wall Street Journal reporter asked Drewniak in an email if the governor was made aware of the lane closures.

Critchley to Drewniak: “That’s a very specific question. You have direct access to the governor. Did you go down to his office and ask him?

Drewniak: “No, I didn’t want to bother him if I didn’t have to.”

Critchley: Was it that much of a burden?”

Drewniak: “Sometimes it was.”

Critchley: “Mr. Drewniak, no disrespect but this was not the Fort Lee Suburban inquiring. This was the Wall Street Journal.”

And Critchley again, a moment later: “Did you ask him any time in September?

Drewniak: “No.”

Critchley:  “Any time in October?”

Drewniak: “No.”

Critchley: “November?”

Drewniak: “No.”

The picture that began to emerge was of a governor’s office engaged in willful blindness.

Drewniak said he became aware in this time period that deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly, who is on trial here, and campaign manager Bill Stepien, who is not, knew something about the lane closures.

Drewniak confirmed today that on Oct. 18 he took that information to the governor’s chief counsel Charlie McKenna, who said, “We’re looking into this.”

Critchley: “Did you ever have a follow-up conversation with McKenna — ‘Hey, Charlie did you ever find out what the lane closures were about?'”

Drewniak: “Not for awhile, no.”

Drewniak testified that chief of staff Kevin O’Dowd likely learned on that same Oct. 18 that Kelly and Stepien were being linked to the shutdown.

Yet it was not until Dec. 13 that Christie announced no one on his senior staff had come forward to accept any responsibility.

And not until Jan. 8 that the lid blew off, with the Bridget Kelly “time for some traffic problems” email.

So, now it’s Bridget Kelly’s turn to mount a defense. She’s expected to take the stand as early as this week, maybe next.

Her co-defendant Bill Baroni’s defense team wrapped up this morning.

The key to the whole case, of course, is David Wildstein, Baroni’s partner at the Port Authority and alleged partner in crime.

Drewniak talked today about how he almost went to work with Baroni and Wildstein as communications director at the Port Authority. He said he was ready to leave the governor’s office but that it hadn’t pan out.

Drewniak described being good friends with Wildstein. He said Wildstein always told him the lane closures were just a traffic study.

He said by the time of their last dinner together on Dec. 4, Wildstein was upset that “he” was “taking the fall” for what would become known as Bridgegate.