Bridgegate defense: Christie staffers asked few questions about lane closures

Christie Traffic Jams
Former Port Authority official Bill Baroni waves as he arrives at court. He is being tried on charges of abusing resources for political purposes.

NEWARK, N.J. - Gov. Christie's chief spokesman didn't ask the governor whether he knew about lane closures at the George Washington Bridge in September 2013, even as reporters began asking precisely that question, according to testimony in federal court Wednesday.

Instead, when the governor's office received an inquiry from a reporter about Christie's awareness four days after the traffic jams ended, then-press secretary Michael Drewniak told jurors, he asked deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly what she knew about the matter.

"Did you go to the governor and say, 'Governor, were you aware of these closures?' " Michael Critchley Sr., an attorney for Kelly, asked Drewniak.

"No, I did not," he said. "I didn't see any reason to bother the governor with this."

Over the course of the trial, now in its fifth week, Critchley has depicted top Christie administration officials as being conspicuously indifferent about the lane closures, even as news outlets such as the Wall Street Journal were reporting on them.

Critchley also has asserted that Kelly and Christie discussed the lane closures beforehand and at the time. The governor has denied having such knowledge.

He continued his skeptical line of questioning Wednesday after calling Drewniak as his first witness.

"Didn't you want to find out if Bridget knew whether the governor knew?" he asked.

"That's not why I went down there," Drewniak told jurors.

He testified that on the same day, Sept. 17, David Wildstein, then a friend and top official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, explained to him that the agency had closed lanes as part of a traffic study.

Prosecutors allege that Kelly conspired with Wildstein and Bill Baroni, Christie's former top executive appointee at the Port Authority, to cause gridlock in Fort Lee, Bergen County, to retaliate against the town's mayor for refusing to endorse Christie's reelection campaign.

Kelly and Baroni are charged with misusing agency resources to punish the mayor, among other counts. Wildstein pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges last year.

On Oct. 18, Wildstein told Drewniak that Kelly and Bill Stepien, Christie's campaign manager, had been aware of the lane closures at the time they were happening, according to Drewniak.

Drewniak testified that he relayed this information to Charles McKenna, Christie's chief counsel. "We're looking into this," McKenna replied, according to Drewniak.

McKenna testified last week that he had "no such recollection" of that conversation.

Critchley showed jurors evidence that a day earlier, Drewniak texted Kevin O'Dowd, Christie's chief of staff, that a "new high level of [expletive] is hitting the fan tonight on the Ft Lee/GWB issue. Maybe you should know about it."

That same day, Oct. 17, a reporter informed the Port Authority that he was writing a story that would say Wildstein was in Fort Lee directing a purported traffic study on Sept. 9.

Drewniak received a text message from Wildstein that day informing him of the forthcoming news story in the Journal, according to evidence introduced at trial.

Drewniak responded that he would "discuss with O'Dowd."

Critchley asked Drewniak if the "high level" remark referred to the news article.

"It may have been," Drewniak, who now works for NJ Transit, responded. "I thought it had to do with legislators."

"Could it also be you wanted to tell him that Bridget Kelly was aware of the lane closures?" Critchley asked.

"No," Drewniak said.

Drewniak also testified about a Dec. 4 dinner he had with Wildstein at a steak house in New Brunswick.

Wildstein repeated his claim that Kelly and Stepien were aware of the lane closures and also asserted that Wildstein and Baroni had told Christie about the traffic study during a 9/11 memorial service, Drewniak testified.

Drewniak denied that he was told that the lane closures were implemented as part of a political retribution scheme, contradicting Wildstein's testimony in the trial.

The following afternoon, Drewniak testified, he walked into O'Dowd's office and told him and Christie what Wildstein had said.

"Then you ask: 'Did anybody ask Bridget Kelly any questions?' " Critchley said.

"Correct," Drewniak replied.

"They didn't respond?"

"Not that I recall," Drewniak testified.

"And how far was Bridget Kelly's office from O'Dowd's office at that time?"

"Probably 40 feet," Drewniak told jurors.

McKenna, Christie's chief counsel, fired Wildstein the next day.

O'Dowd called Kelly on Dec. 12 and met with her in person the next day to ask whether she knew anything or had emails related to the lane closures, according to previous court testimony.

On Dec. 13, Christie announced Baroni's resignation.

Christie fired Kelly on Jan. 9, a day after news organizations reported that an email appeared to link her to the bridge scheme.

aseidman@phillynews.com

856-779-3846 @AndrewSeidman

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