NEWARK, N.J. — The man at the heart of the George Washington Bridge lane-closing case concluded eight days of testimony Wednesday by reiterating that a goal in the aftermath of the scandal was to insulate New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s office from blame.
David Wildstein, the one person to plead guilty in the alleged political retaliation plot by Christie loyalists against the mayor of the town that abuts the bridge, struck a contrite pose as he described first telling a bridge authority police official not to lie about the plot then reversing field.
“I was in a bad place. I was feeling sorry for myself,” Wildstein said during questioning by defense lawyers. The official, Paul Nunziato, said in December 2013 the lane closures near the bridge, which caused massive gridlock for four days in the town of Fort Lee, were part of a traffic study suggested by police.
The overriding goal in the months following the September 2013 closures, Wildstein said, was to keep Christie’s office out of any public discussions.
That goal, he said, guided the preparation for testimony in November 2013 to a New Jersey legislative committee by Bill Baroni, one of two defendants Wildstein testified against in the current trial. Baroni told that committee the gridlock was due to a traffic study that had been poorly communicated to local officials and motorists.
Tying Christie or his staffers to the burgeoning scandal “was never going to happen,” Wildstein told jurors Wednesday. “There would be no mention of the governor’s office, the governor’s office would be insulated.”
Baroni was Christie’s top appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge. His co-defendant, Bridget Kelly, was Christie’s deputy chief of staff and headed an office responsible for outreach to county and municipal officials.
Testimony by Wildstein and others has portrayed Kelly’s office as keeping a list of Democratic mayors targeted for endorsing the re-election of Christie, a Republican, in 2013. Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich was one of those mayors, and the government contends Kelly and Baroni schemed with Wildstein in August 2013 to create gridlock in Fort Lee after Sokolich declined to endorse Christie.
Kelly and Baroni face charges including conspiracy, fraud and deprivation of civil rights. The most serious charge, wire fraud conspiracy, carries a 20-year maximum prison sentence.
They contend the scheme was conceived and executed by Wildstein, a career political operative and blogger their attorneys have characterized as Christie’s hatchet man at the Port Authority, a powerful bistate agency that runs bridges, tunnels, ports, airports and the World Trade Center.
Christie wasn’t charged and has denied any involvement in the scheme or its cover-up. Wildstein testified several members in the governor’s inner circle knew about the plot beforehand or soon after, and that Christie himself was told about the traffic jams on Sept. 11, 2013, on the third day of the lane closures.
Christie reiterated last week he “had no knowledge prior to or during these lane realignments.”
Among Wildstein’s claims during his testimony Tuesday was that Christie and Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo discussed using a bogus report to defuse questions surrounding the traffic scandal as it unfolded.
Cuomo on Wednesday called the allegation “not accurate” and “gossip” and that Wildstein had no firsthand evidence to back up his claim.