Witness Says Christie Aide Asked Her to Delete Email About Lane Closings

NEWARK — As the scandal over the lane closings at the George Washington Bridge mushroomed in December 2013, Bridget Anne Kelly called a co-worker one evening in a panic.

“You know, Christina, if someone tells me something is O.K., who am I to question it?” she asked.

Then, according to testimony in United States District Court here from the co-worker, Christina Renna, Ms. Kelly asked her to delete an email that had been written three months earlier, when the lane closings were causing a catastrophic traffic jam in Fort Lee, N.J. Prosecutors say the closings were planned by Ms. Kelly and two other senior aides to Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey as a punishment of the town’s mayor after he declined to endorse Mr. Christie for re-election.

The email that September day documented a call from the mayor to a young staff member in the governor’s office, in which the mayor complained about safety hazards from the shutdowns and said he suspected that they were “government retribution.”

Ms. Kelly, a deputy chief of staff to Mr. Christie, had received the email from Ms. Renna and replied, “Good.”

Ms. Renna testified that she did not delete the email until the next day, during a news conference that Mr. Christie, a Republican, held to announce the resignations of two officials at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge. Mr. Christie told reporters there that neither his campaign manager, Bill Stepien, nor anyone on his senior staff knew anything about a punitive motive behind the closings, calling the whole episode overblown.

Ms. Renna texted another former co-worker, Peter Sheridan, during the news conference, saying: “Are you listening? He just flat-out lied about senior staff and Stepien not being involved.” The Port Authority officials had been served with subpoenas that day. If emails surfaced as a result, Ms. Renna wrote to Mr. Sheridan, “it could be bad.”

On Thursday, Ms. Renna told prosecutors that her text to Mr. Sheridan had been “a poor choice of words.” “I had no knowledge of whether or not the governor was lying or not,” she said. “I just meant that based on the information I had from Bridget the evening before that I knew personally what Governor Christie was saying seemed to contradict what I was just told.”

Ms. Kelly and one of the Port Authority officials, Bill Baroni, are on trial, accused of approving and directing the lane closings to punish the mayor, and covering them up. The other authority official, David Wildstein, has pleaded guilty to orchestrating the scheme and is cooperating with prosecutors.

Ms. Renna’s testimony about the dramatic last days before the emergence of Ms. Kelly’s now-famous email — “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” — left an opening for Ms. Kelly’s defense.

Lawyers for Ms. Kelly and Mr. Baroni argue that Mr. Wildstein acted on his own, and fooled the two of them into thinking the closings were part of a legitimate traffic study. Prosecutors say they knew the traffic study was a cover-up.

Ms. Renna testified that Ms. Kelly had called that December night to tell her that the governor would hold a news conference to announce Mr. Baroni’s resignation. “She said I’m just getting so many questions about this, I didn’t know anything about the lane closures,” Ms. Renna recalled. Ms. Renna reminded Ms. Kelly about the email regarding the mayor’s call months earlier.

“Do me a favor and get rid of it,” she recalled Ms. Kelly telling her. Ms. Kelly, she said, sounded “a little bit frantic and nervous,” and said, “If David says there’s a traffic study, I have no doubt there’s proof there’s a traffic study.”

Ms. Renna said she began to agree with Ms. Kelly, saying that if Mr. Stepien or Mr. Wildstein had told her the lane closings were approved, she would not have questioned it, either. “I didn’t get to finish my full thought, because Bridget cut me off,” she said. “And said, ‘I don’t need your vindication, Christina.’”

When Ms. Renna gave a similar account to a New Jersey legislative committee in 2014, Ms. Kelly’s lawyer issued a statement calling it “at best, erroneous.” The prosecution will continue its direct examination of Ms. Renna on Friday; she will then be cross-examined by Ms. Kelly’s lawyers.

Ms. Renna is married to the chief executive of South Jersey Industries, a conglomerate of energy companies. In 2015, she admitted in an agreement with the state ethics committee that she had improperly shared privileged information — which she possessed only because of her work in the governor’s office — with her husband and other family members, and paid a $500 fine.

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