Bridgegate witness backs off 'Christie lied' text

Former staffer Christina Renna testified in federal court Thursday that she didn't know whether the governor was lying.

NEWARK, N.J. - The former Christie administration official who texted a friend that Gov. Christie "flat out lied" to the news media in saying his aides were not involved in the George Washington Bridge lane closures now says she didn't know whether the governor was lying.

"It was a poor choice of words. I had no knowledge of whether or not the governor was lying" during a Dec. 13, 2013, news conference, Christina Renna testified in federal court here Thursday.

During the news conference, Christie said he had "absolutely no reason to believe" someone on his staff acted on his behalf to close the lanes for political retribution.

"And I've made it very clear to everybody on my senior staff that if anyone had knowledge about this, that they needed to come forward to me and tell me about it, and they've all assured me that they don't," he said.

Christie added that Bill Stepien, the governor's campaign manager, had assured him of that.

As Renna watched the news conference on her computer, she texted a friend that Christie "just flat out lied about senior staff and Stepien not being involved."

Testifying Thursday in the trial of Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, Christie's former top executive appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Renna clarified her remarks.

Defense attorneys will cross-examine Renna on Friday.

Prosecutors allege that Kelly and Baroni conspired with David Wildstein, a former Port Authority official who has pleaded guilty in the case, to cause massive traffic jams in Fort Lee, Bergen County, in September 2013 to punish the town's mayor for his refusal to endorse Christie's reelection that year.

Then they covered up the scheme by calling it a traffic study, according to prosecutors.

Renna told jurors that Kelly called her the night before the news conference and said, "You know, Christina, if David says there is a traffic study, I have no doubt there's proof that there's a traffic study." Renna worked under Kelly in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.

Renna testified that Kelly, who had been questioned by Christie's chief of staff about whether she had been involved in the lane closures, also told her, "You know, Christina, if someone tells me something is OK, who am I to question them?"

Based upon that conversation, Renna said, she believed Christie's remarks to the press were false.

An attorney for Baroni disclosed Renna's text in an August court filing, adding that he believed that Renna had deleted it and other messages.

Renna did not mention the text exchange with Peter Sheridan, a staffer in Christie's 2013 reelection campaign, during her sworn testimony before a legislative committee investigating the lane closures in 2014.

Baroni's attorney, Michael Baldassare, said in the court filing that he discovered the text when he was reviewing documents Sheridan had provided in response to a subpoena.

Under questioning Thursday from Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes, Renna also told jurors about her communications with Kelly during the week of the Sept. 9 to 13 lane closures.

On Sept. 12, 2013, Renna wrote Kelly an email informing her that Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich had called a staffer to complain about public safety hazards and share his concern that the gridlock had been imposed as some kind of "government retribution."

"Good," Kelly replied.

During their phone conversation Dec. 12, Kelly told Renna about the forthcoming news conference and that Christie was going to announce Baroni's resignation from the Port Authority.

Kelly told Renna she was "getting a lot of questions about everything with the lane closures" and insisted she knew nothing about them, according to the testimony.

Then Renna reminded her of their September email exchange.

"Well, 'good' can mean a bunch of different things. You can read 'good' a bunch of different ways," Kelly said, according to Renna.

Kelly reiterated that she was "getting a lot of questions about this, so do me a favor and get rid of it," Renna testified. Across the courtroom, Kelly slowly shook her head.

Renna deleted the email but preserved a copy on another account, according to evidence introduced by prosecutors.

The two spoke again Jan. 8, 2014, after the bridge scandal erupted with the publication of a news report revealing Kelly's Aug. 13, 2013, email to Wildstein: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."

Crying, Kelly said, "I'm so sorry, Christina." Renna said she asked her if she had spoken to the governor. "He won't talk to me," Kelly responded, according to Renna.

In the courtroom, Kelly nodded in apparent agreement.

They spoke by phone a couple of more times that day, Renna testified, and by the end, Kelly had returned to "business as usual," inquiring about who had responded to invitations to attend Christie's forthcoming State of the State address.

"She was asking me how many RSVPs came in that day," Renna said. "How many noes, how many yeses."

aseidman@phillynews.com

856-779-3846 @AndrewSeidman