Chris Christie Protected Culprit in Bridge Lane Closings, Agency Head Testifies

NEWARK — The acknowledged culprit behind the closing of traffic lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge in September 2013 was “protected by Chris Christie,” the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey agreed during court testimony on Thursday.

That culprit, David Wildstein, is now the prosecution’s star witness against two former top officials in the administration of Mr. Christie, the governor of New Jersey. The officials are accused of closing access lanes at the bridge to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., for refusing to endorse the governor’s re-election bid, then covering the plot up.

While Mr. Christie is not charged, prosecutors have said he knew about the lane closings as they were happening, contrary to what the governor has said in the three years since. The closed lanes caused gridlock in the town, stymying ambulances, commuters and schoolchildren for four days.

Lawyers for the two defendants have argued that their clients are scapegoats in a political game involving players with far more power.

Testimony on Thursday morning by Patrick J. Foye, the executive director of the Port Authority, which operates the bridge, described a frenzied effort to cover up the punitive purpose of the closings in the three months afterward. Mr. Christie won a broad re-election that fall, becoming a front-runner for the Republican nomination for the presidency and prompting more interest, and more questions from reporters, about the events.

Mr. Foye testified that he conducted an internal review of the closings, talking to just three people at the Port Authority. But he could not ask Mr. Wildstein, a top official at the agency and a close ally of Mr. Christie’s, even a single question, he testified.

“Because you couldn’t?” asked Michael Critchley, a lawyer for one of the defendants, Bridget Anne Kelly, who was a deputy chief of staff to Mr. Christie. “He was protected by Chris Christie, correct?”

“Yes,” Mr. Foye said.

A Port Authority board member appointed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Democrat of New York, had wanted to fire Mr. Wildstein for a year, Mr. Foye testified. Mr. Wildstein was “abusive and untrustworthy,” he said, and “hated by hundreds, thousands of people at the Port Authority.” But Mr. Wildstein could not be terminated, Mr. Foye said, because it was “complicated.”

Mr. Wildstein ultimately resigned in December 2013, amid increasing scrutiny of the lane closings and the Christie administration’s involvement. Mr. Christie personally edited the public statement announcing his resignation, adding praise for his service.

Mr. Wildstein then refused to give up his Port Authority cellphone and iPad, Mr. Foye testified. Mr. Foye sent an email asking David Samson, a confidant of Mr. Christie’s who was chairman of the Port Authority board, for help getting them back.

“Because you are closest to him,” Mr. Foye wrote.

Mr. Wildstein pleaded guilty in 2015 to masterminding the lane closings, and is now cooperating with prosecutors against Ms. Kelly and Bill Baroni, Mr. Christie’s top staff appointee at the Port Authority.

Mr. Foye, who was appointed to his position by Mr. Cuomo, described a toxic relationship between the two states at the Port Authority that only got worse after the lane closings.

He told Mr. Samson that he should recuse himself from an investigation into Mr. Wildstein’s conduct because, as he wrote in an email to the chairman, “you have substantial and irreconcilable conflicts.”

And Mr. Foye complained to a colleague that Mr. Christie’s office wanted him to “step back on the matter,” referring to the closed lanes. To which Mr. Critchley added, “And you said that your hands were tied and it was driving you crazy.” (Mr. Foye said he could not recall this, but agreed that his colleague had no reason to lie.)

Mr. Foye said he knew that Mr. Christie’s administration had long wanted him fired.

Still, Mr. Foye wrote to a colleague that he had “no reason to believe that Bill Baroni had knowledge of Wildstein’s troubling and aberrant behavior” in closing the lanes.

Throughout the days that the lanes were closed, Mr. Baroni refused to return increasingly agitated calls from the mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, warning him of the threats to public safety presented by the lane closings.

An aide to Mr. Baroni in charge of dealing with local towns testified that this was highly unusual for her boss.

When the aide, Tina Lado, emailed him to ask if she should return the mayor’s calls, Mr. Baroni called her up, she said, and was “rather curt and very short on the phone, not his usual demeanor.” He advised her that there were concerns that her department had been racking up high phone charges for calls to local municipalities “and we needed to be careful and not make any outgoing calls.”

“What I took from that was that we would not call back Fort Lee.”

Never before or since then, she added, had anyone raised concerns about high telephone costs.

Three months later, Mr. Baroni had testified before the New Jersey Legislature about the lane closings, insisting they were part of a legitimate traffic study. Mr. Baroni’s co-workers believed this to be false. But Mr. Christie’s office was reportedly happy with his performance. John Ma, Mr. Foye’s chief of staff, testified that he bumped into Mr. Baroni soon after and said something about it being “some hearing.”

Mr. Baroni replied that he had “showed them up,” Mr. Ma said. “I would describe him as really pumped up about it.”

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