Bridgegate testimony: Christie seemed to approve of retaliation against mayors

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Bill Baroni (front) walks toward the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Courthouse in Newark, N.J., with his attorneys, Michael Baldassare and Jennifer Mara, on Monday, Sept. 26, 2016.

NEWARK, N.J. - New Jersey's highest-ranking executive appointee at the Port Authority told Gov. Christie at a 9/11 commemorative event in 2013 that there were massive traffic jams in Fort Lee and that the governor would be "pleased to know" the agency was not returning the mayor's phone calls, the architect of the plot testified Tuesday.

David Wildstein said Christie seemed to approve, responding to Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni's remarks by saying, "I would imagine he wouldn't be getting his phone calls returned."

Wildstein was Baroni's top aide at the time at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Baroni then told Christie that Wildstein was "monitoring the traffic" and "watching over everything," according to Wildstein.

Christie responded in a sarcastic tone consistent with the tone of the conversation, Wildstein said, saying, "Well, I'm sure Mr. Edge would not be involved in anything that's political." That was a reference to Wildstein's previous life as a political blogger who wrote under the pseudonym "Wally Edge," a riff on Walter Edge, a former New Jersey governor.

Christie then laughed, Wildstein told jurors.

Wildstein's testimony came as prosecutors showed jurors photos of Christie meeting with Baroni and Wildstein at the 9/11 event.

More than two years after Wildstein's attorney claimed that "evidence exists" that Christie had contemporaneous knowledge of the lane closures, the government's star witness provided the details Tuesday in the federal trial of Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff.

Why tell Christie in the first place?

"To take a curtain call," Wildstein said, adding that Kelly had told him the governor would "love" the idea.

Following that conversation, Christie also talked about Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop with Baroni and David Samson, the Port Authority's chairman, Wildstein testified. The mayors, both Democrats, had declined to endorse Christie for reelection.

According to Wildstein, Christie ordered Samson to cancel a meeting he had set up with Fulop, saying: "He's not getting any responses from the administration."

The governor referred to Sokolich as well, Wildstein said. His message, the former aide testified, was that the Port Authority was not to communicate with either mayor.

Wildstein also has implicated Samson in the bridge scheme, saying Baroni had informed the chairman of its punitive purpose. Samson pleaded guilty in July to a felony bribery charge in a separate case. His attorney could not be reached.

Speaking at the Statehouse on Tuesday, Christie told reporters he had "no knowledge prior to or during these lane realignments."

"I had no role in authorizing. I had no knowledge of it," said Christie, who has not been charged. "And there's been no evidence ever put forward that I ever did."

The court testimony Tuesday left unclear whether Baroni told the governor of what had prompted the traffic jams. On NJ 101.5's Ask the Governor radio program Tuesday evening, Christie said it would not be unusual to hear of traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge, which is prone to backups.

Prosecutors say Baroni and Kelly conspired with Wildstein and others to cause gridlock in Fort Lee as punishment of Sokolich for his refusal to endorse the governor for reelection.

At Kelly's direction and with Baroni's blessing, prosecutors allege, Wildstein ordered Port Authority personnel to close two of three access lanes leading from Fort Lee to the bridge from Sept. 9 to 13, 2013.

Kelly and Baroni are charged with misusing Port Authority resources, wire fraud, and depriving Fort Lee residents of their right to localized travel.

Wildstein pleaded guilty in 2015 to conspiracy charges and is cooperating with the government.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes asked Wildstein if he and Baroni were "bragging" to Christie at the 9/11 event.

"Yes, very much so," Wildstein said. "This was our one constituent. I was pleasing my one constituent. . . . I was happy that he was happy."

After a news report identified him as the individual who orchestrated the lane closures, Wildstein said he met in November 2013 with Christie's chief political strategist, Mike DuHaime, whom Wildstein described as a friend of 15 years.

Over coffee near DuHaime's office in Westfield, Wildstein testified that he told the strategist about the lane closures' true purpose, that Kelly and Baroni were also involved, and that Wildstein had informed Christie's campaign manager, Bill Stepien, about the plot ahead of time.

DuHaime was "upset with me," Wildstein said. "He thought this was a very bad idea. He told me, 'I wish you had spoken to me; I would have told you not to do it.' "

Wildstein told jurors that he also relayed to DuHaime his conversation with Christie and Baroni during the Sept. 11 ceremony. Wildstein said DuHaime told him that Christie "must have thought Mr. Baroni and I were joking along; Gov. Christie would not think that was funny."

DuHaime's attorney, Marc L. Mukasey, said his client was "a potential witness in this case, so specific commentary on Wildstein's version of the facts is imprudent."

"I will simply say that Mike has, at all times, told the truth when he has been questioned about this matter and he will continue to do so," he said.

Wildstein also said he told Phil Kwon, then deputy general counsel at the Port Authority, about the plot after Baroni received an invitation from a state legislative committee to testify about the lane closures in November 2013.

"Phil Kwon was never told that the lane closures were intended to punish the mayor of Fort Lee," said Kwon's attorney, Geoffrey S. Berman, who is managing shareholder of the New Jersey office of Greenberg Traurig LLP.

Wildstein has also implicated William "Pat" Schuber, a Port Authority commissioner appointed by Christie. He told jurors Monday that Schuber had advance knowledge of the motives behind the bridge scheme.

Attorneys for Stepien and Schuber have denied Wildstein's allegations. Neither has been charged.

As part of the conspiracy, prosecutors allege Kelly and Baroni worked with Wildstein to cover up the bridge plot by calling it a traffic study. Wildstein testified he and Baroni approved statements to the news media that attributed the lane realignment to a study of "traffic safety patterns."

"What does 'traffic safety patterns' mean?" Cortes asked.

"It doesn't mean anything," Wildstein said.

So why did he say that?

"Because," Wildstein said, "it sounded good."

aseidman@phillynews.com

856-779-3846 @AndrewSeidman