Kelly testifies Christie signed off on Bridgegate lane closures

By Ted Sherman and Matt Arco | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on October 21, 2016

 Defendant Bridget Anne Kelly, a former top aide to Gov. Chris Christie, arrives at the Federal Courthouse in Newark to testify in the Bridgegate trial on Friday, Oct. 21, 2016.

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NEWARK – In an emotional day of testimony, Bridget Anne Kelly refuted the charges against her in the Bridgegate scandal, telling a jury she told Gov. Chris Christie in advance about the plan to close toll lanes at the George Washington Bridge in 2013, and had gotten his approval for what she thought was a legitimate traffic study.

She denied ever having any knowledge of the bizarre scheme of political retaliation alleged by federal prosecutors.

And she asserted that other higher-ups in the governor's inner circle were all well-aware of what was going on in Fort Lee, long before it played out, and that no one seemed that concerned about it.

"It just wasn't a big deal," she said.

Kelly described working for a mercurial governor with a quick temper that also left her "gun shy."

At the same time, the author of the now-infamous message "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" called what has long appeared to be the smoking gun in the case an innocent response to what she called a "crazy plan" by David Wildstein, the admitted mastermind of the lane shutdowns.

Kelly said Wildstein told her he wanted to realign local toll lanes to reduce travel time for commuters on the main approaches to the bridge, and wanted the governor's approval. She said she was parroting his language that the realignment would temporarily cause traffic problems in Fort Lee, and only wanted to let him know the governor had agreed to the plan.

"If I had said 'time for a traffic study,' we wouldn't have all known each other," she told jurors.

The governor has repeatedly denied any advance knowledge of the lane shutdowns in Fort Lee, which came to light as he was preparing to run for national office, and played a role in the collapse of his presidential campaign.

He has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

In a statement released Friday the governor's office refuted Kelly's testimony.

"As the governor has said since January 9, 2014, the governor had no knowledge prior to or during these lane realignments, and he had no role in authorizing them. Anything said to the contrary is simply untrue," said Christie spokesman Brian T. Murray.

Kelly is on trial with Bill Baroni, the one-time deputy executive director of the Port Authority, which operates the George Washington Bridge. The two face nine counts of conspiracy and fraud charges in connection with the alleged plot to deliberately create gridlock in Fort Lee.

Wild stein, who pleaded guilty, testified the closures were intended as political payback to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, for not endorsing Christie's re-election bid. In his testimony, he also said that Kelly and Baroni helped to orchestrate the revenge plot from the beginning.

Speaking publicly for the first time since her indictment last year, Kelly described working for a governor who was often intimidating and not at all shy about tossing around expletives when he was unhappy.

In the wake of the September 2013 fire on the boardwalk in Seaside Height—which occurred the same week that the toll lanes in Fort Lee were being closed—Kelly tearfully recounted the governor being sharply critical of an event she planned to bring together cabinet members with local business leaders.

Her idea, she said, was for the panel to be moderated by the governor.

"What do you think I am, a f------ game show host?" he demanded. She said the governor then threw his water bottle and it hit her arm.

"Were you afraid of the governor?" asked her attorney, Michael Critchley.

"Yes," she replied.

"He was a big tough guy, eh?"

"Yes."

At the same time, she testified that the governor himself sought to freeze out Steve Fulop after the Democrat was elected mayor of Jersey City. She told the jury she had planned a "mayor's day" meeting to bring together members of the administration with the incoming mayor, but the event was suddenly called off.

Prosecutors have pointed to that cancellation as another example of the how the governor's Office of Intergovernmental Relations, which was headed by Kelly, systematically punished elected officials who would not endorse Christie. But Kelly said she had no idea why the event was dropped.

She told the jury she was ordered by Kevin O'Dowd, the governor's chief of staff, to have each department call Fulop's office one-by-one and cancel.

Christie, she said tearfully, later marched into the office and declared, "No one's entitled to a f——— meeting."

She said the governor told her later to "continue to ice Fulop—that no one was to talk to Fulop."

Kelly, the final defense witness in a case that has gone on now for five weeks, had a high burden in taking the witness stand.

Wildstein, a $150,000-a-year patronage appointee at the Port Authority, testified that his job was to support the political goals of the Christie administration. He said he took his direction of Kelly as his direct representative with the governor's office.

The first talk of the lane closures in Fort Lee happened in the summer of 2013, Kelly testified.

Kelly said Wildstein had called her that summer with what he called "a weird idea even by my standards."

She said he wanted to conduct a traffic study by shutting down several toll lanes dedicated to Fort Lee. She said Wildstein thought the lanes were unfair and caused traffic from the main approaches to the bridge to move much slower because they had fewer lanes.

"He told me it was a backroom political deal with the former mayor of Fort Lee. The mayor owned a bank and there was traffic backup in front of that bank," she said of the three lanes dedicated to a local access ramp.

Wildstein said he thought after initial traffic jams in Fort Lee, drivers would adapt and that Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo would ultimately be able to take credit for quicker access into New York, Kelly testified.

But first, Wildstein wanted Kelly to talk to the governor, which she did, she testified.

"I said, governor, by the way, I spoke to Wildstein about ... the Port Authority doing a traffic study," Kelly said.

"He said, 'OK, why are we doing this?'" Kelly recalled of Christie's reaction.

After she explained, the governor, at first, didn't "really react."

Then he said he was fine with it. "Typical Wally," she said he remarked, referring to Wildstein's pen name as an anonymous political blogger when he wrote under the name of Wally Edge.

Kelly said the governor told her to run it by O'Dowd.

Within "a few hours," Kelly texted O'Dowd asking for time to talk to him, she said. "I told him that I had spoken to the governor," Kelly recalled.

O'Dowd didn't have any objections, she said.

But the governor did have one question, Kelly said. He wanted to know about the status of his office's relationship with Sokolich.

Kelly said she thought Christie asked the question because Wildstein acknowledged there would be significant traffic problems in Fort Lee.

Kelly described being embarrassed that she didn't have a better understanding of the administration's relationship with Sokolich to relay to the governor, but she didn't go into further detail about Christie's concerns or their discussion about Sokolich.

Kelly, whose testimony continues on Monday, still must explain texts she exchanged with Wildstein the week of the lane closures, including one on Sept. 10, 2013, the second day of historic traffic backups in Fort Lee, after the two saw a message sent by Sokoloich. The mayor, who testified he could not get Baroni to return his calls, had complained: "Presently we have four very busy traffic lanes merging into only one toll booth... The bigger problem is getting kids to school. Help please. It's maddening."

"Is it wrong that I am smiling?" she asked Wildstein after seeing a copy of the Sokolich message.

"No," he responded.

"I feel badly about the kids. I guess," she said.

"They are the children of Buono voters," replied Wildstein, referring to Barbara Buono, then the Democratic nominee challenging Christie in the gubernatorial race. "Bottom line is he didn't say safety."

Earlier on Friday, Mike DuHaime, Christie's long-time political strategist, revealed that minutes before a news conference in December 2013, at which the governor insisted his top staffers had assured him they had no knowledge of the George Washington Bridge lane closures, the governor spoke with him on the phone. 

The conversation lasted five minutes and ended just moments before Christie walked out of his office and was met face-to-face with a room packed with reporters and TV news cameras.

The governor claimed no one in his office knew anything. But by that time, DuHaime testified, that he had confirmation from Wildstein that Kelly was aware of the closures and that emails existed that proved she knew.

DuHaime's conversation with Christie was at the forefront of Critchley's grilling of DuHaime, who blanked on details of his conversation with the governor.

"I don't recall if I passed along email information to the governor," DuHaime told jurors.

A few weeks later in January, after the "time for traffic problems" email leaked from a legislative committee came to light, the governor called another press conference and fired her.

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