Star Bridgegate witness admits career of 'lies and deceptions'

WILDSTEIN PLEA
David Wildstein faced a withering cross-examination at the Bridgegate trial.

NEWARK, N.J. - The one confessed culprit in the George Washington Bridge lane-closure trial came under sustained assault Friday, as a defense attorney for a former aide to Gov. Christie tarred the witness' character and tried to show jurors that he was far closer to the governor's inner circle than he had represented.

Michael Critchley Sr., lead attorney for Bridget Anne Kelly, forced David Wildstein, the government's star witness, to admit to a career of "lies and deceptions" that eventually culminated in criminal activity.

Critchley depicted Wildstein, a former top official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, as a prized asset in Christie's orbit who frequently provided research and advice to the governor's campaign manager and collected endorsements on Christie's behalf even as he worked for an independent government agency.

Christie even disclosed secret grand jury information to Wildstein in the course of instructing Wildstein to offer the Democratic sheriff of Passaic County a job at the Port Authority so that a Republican could win the position, according to the testimony. Christie has denied the allegation.

"You were a rather significant person within the Christie inner circle, were you not?" Critchley asked Wildstein during four hours of cross-examination in federal court here.

Wildstein said he couldn't say how he was perceived.

The upshot of Critchley's cross-examination seemed to be that Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff, was relatively dispensable on Christie's team, and therefore didn't have the authority to order Wildstein to close lanes at the bridge in an effort to punish a local mayor for his refusal to endorse the governor's 2013 reelection campaign.

Prosecutors say Kelly and Bill Baroni, a former top Christie appointee at the Port Authority, conspired with Wildstein and others in September 2013 to cause massive traffic jams in Fort Lee, Bergen County, to retaliate against Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat.

Wildstein pleaded guilty to conspiracy last year. Baroni and Kelly are charged with conspiracy and misusing Port Authority resources, among other counts.

Wildstein has testified that he ordered Port Authority personnel to close the lanes after Kelly directed him in an email to cause "traffic problems in Fort Lee." Baroni, then the highest-ranking New Jersey executive at the Port Authority, blessed the plan, according to Wildstein.

Critchley, moving swiftly through evidence, tried to establish that Wildstein was not the kind of person who would need orders from Kelly to implement the lane closures.

The defense attorney pointed to some two dozen entries on Wildstein's calendar that showed he had scheduled meetings with top Christie advisers, including Bill Stepien, the campaign manager and former deputy chief of staff; Michele Brown, Christie's appointments counsel, who had worked under Christie when he was U.S. attorney; Michael Drewniak, the governor's press secretary; and Mike DuHaime, the chief political strategist.

Critchley showed jurors emails that suggested Wildstein was in constant communication with Stepien: providing him with voting data on all 565 municipalities in the state, research on previous two-term governors' success in picking up seats in the legislature during their reelection campaigns, suggestions on such strategic matters as whether to leak information about Christie's opponent to the news media, and advice concerning whether Stepien ought to run for state Republican Party chairman.

Christie's expected presidential campaign was often discussed in the decision-making process.

Critchley suggested Wildstein was also chummy with the governor himself, showing jurors a photo of Christie putting his arm around him at an event in Hudson County. And Wildstein testified that he made it clear to Christie several times that he hoped to play a role in his presidential campaign and potentially in the White House.

Critchley walked Wildstein through some of his admitted lies and political tricks, such as Wildstein's fabrication of a story in which he claimed to have organized a free bus trip to Atlantic City for Union County Democrats and black residents on an election day, so that they wouldn't be able to return to the polls in time to cast votes.

Wildstein, 55, testified that for years, he bragged to friends that he had actually done that when he was 22 years old.

"In your mind, right from wrong, what's more despicable: engaging in voter suppression with minorities - or bragging about engaging in voter suppression about minorities?" Critchley asked.

Wildstein said he now considers both "entirely despicable."

Wildstein's "lies and deceptions" continued into his 50s, he testified. In 2010, he lied on his job application for a Port Authority job that he had graduated from George Washington University - even though he had already been hired through his political connections.

"You lied again?" Critchley asked.

"Yes, I did," Wildstein told jurors, explaining he was "personally humiliated" by his failure to graduate.

Critchley also used a subtle tactic to try to weaken Wildstein's credibility. The lawyer showed jurors an email exchange between Wildstein and DuHaime, in which they discussed who would get credit for landing Christie the endorsement of a Port Authority police officer.

"I've delivered five public employee unions," Wildstein wrote. "You can have this one. Want you to look good to gov."

Asked whether Wildstein was again bragging about his ability to win endorsements, Wildstein insisted the matter was a joke; the officer in question was a member of DuHaime's extended family. Emails among friends can be difficult for third parties to understand, Wildstein testified.

Critchley is likely to make a similar argument with regard to Kelly's "traffic problems" email.

"Pretty good answer," he told Wildstein.

aseidman@phillynews.com

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@AndrewSeidman