Christie Aide in Bridge-Plot Trial Recalls Violent Acts by Governor

10/21/2016 10:35:00 AM, Nick Rummell
     NEWARK, N.J. (CN) — Painting a monstrous picture of Gov. Chris Christie for jurors Friday, the former political aide indicted in New Jersey's bridge scandal said the governor was abusive and physically violent to work for — and that he signed off on the lane closures whose stain still plagues his office.
     Bridget Anne Kelly's testimony this morning comes five weeks into her trial on lane closures at the George Washington Bridge that caused unprecedented traffic in nearby Fort Lee over four days in September 2013.
     One former ally of the Republican governor, David Wildstein, has admitted that the lane closures were meant to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie's re-election.
     Kelly has been on trial in Newark this month alongside Bill Baroni Jr., who had been Christie's top appointee to the public agency that runs the bridge, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
     Taking the stand this morning, Kelly told jurors that Christie learned about the lane shutdown a month in advance, from her, on Aug. 12.
     "I was scared if I didn't tell him what would happen ... I would be blamed for something I didn't do," Kelly said.
     The defendant cried several times throughout her testimony Friday, recalling various heated confrontations with the governor. Christie's spokesman has not yet returned a request for comment.
     One outburst Kelly described occurred after a fire in Seaside Heights on Sept. 12, 2013.
     The governor and others were set to meet with small-business owners affected by the disaster, and Kelly said she pitched an idea for Christie to open up a press conference and then give the floor to people who would discuss their plans for helping the community.
     Enraged at the idea, according to Kelly's testimony, Christie chucked the bottle of water he was holding, hitting her with it in the arm.
     "What do you think I am, a fucking game show host?" he roared, Kelly said.
     That week had been a particularly difficult one for Christie, as it coincided with the four days of lane closures whose origins remain under scrutiny.
     Christie does not face charges over the plot, but testimony challenging his stance on the scandal has grown by the day in the trial of Baroni and Kelly this past month and a half.
     Kelly testified Friday that she first learned about the lane-closure plan in mid-June 2013 from Wildstein, who had been Christie's diligent enforcer at the Port Authority.
     When Wildstein revisited the idea on Aug. 12, Kelly said, he gloated about having something "extraordinarily weird, even by my standards, to tell you."
     Kelly said Wildstein told her that the Port Authority wanted to close two of the three lanes leading on to the George Washington Bridge reserved for Fort Lee as part of a traffic study.
     As she understood it, the closed lanes would cause some back-up traffic in Fort Lee, but its net result would reduce congestion on the busy span connecting New Jersey to New York City.
     Years of investigation into the plot later revealed the Port Authority's traffic study to be a cover-up. Wildstein admitted as part of his plea deal that he orchestrated the lane closures to make Mayor Sokolich in Fort Lee pay for slighting Christie.
     Casting herself as unaware of the traffic study's true motive, Kelly said she relayed Wildstein's sanitized plan to Christie later on Aug. 12.
     Christie had a minimal reaction, she remembered, telling her "fine."
     When Kelly informed Christie about the extra traffic Fort Lee would see because of the lane closures, she said Christie asked about the status of his office's relationship with Sokolich.
     Kelly recalled telling the governor about Wildstein's heroic vision of the traffic study — capped off with a press conference in the fall where Christie could take credit for ending the bridge's reputation for terminal congestion.
     "That's typical Wally," Christie said in reply, according to Kelly's testimony.
     Throughout the trial, the court has heard about Wildstein's idolization of Wally Edge, a former governor of New Jersey who had been famous for hobnobbing with Atlantic City's Enoch "Nucky" Johnson.
     Kelly said Christie told her to bring the lane-closure plan to Kevin O'Dowd, his then chief of staff.
     O'Dowd's reaction was that he was OK with it if Christie was, she remembered.
     It was upon hearing this, Kelly said, that she sent the message seen as callously plotting Mayor Sokolich's undoing.
     "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Kelly wrote to Wildstein on Aug. 13.
     Michael Critchley, the defense attorney direct-examining Kelly asked: "Was that a code to punish Mayor Sokolich?"
     "Absolutely not," Kelly answered.
     "Those were words that David used all the time when discussing Port Authority issues that may involve traffic," she added.
     More evidence casting doubt on Christie are pictures of him laughing with Baroni and Wildstein at a 9/11 memorial event — coinciding with Day 3 of the lane closures.
     Kelly said she saw Christie passing by after the event when he returned to his office in Trenton.
     She stopped him to inform the governor about the traffic issues in Fort Lee, and complaints being lodged Sokolich, according to her testimony
     Kelly said that Christie cited Wildstein and told her: "The Port Authority is handling it."
     Michelle Brown, a fellow senior staffer who served as appointments counsel to the governor, was with Christie during this exchange, Kelly added.
     Kelly elaborated that — prior to the first day of lane closures on Sept. 9 — Wildstein had told her to expect Sokolich to "cry wolf" about traffic problems in Fort Lee.
     "I wasn't surprised" when complaints from Sokolich and others starting coming into the governor's office, Kelly said.
     O'Dowd, the chief of staff, was not alarmed either, she added.
     "It's Wildstein's problem," O'Dowd had said, according to Kelly's testimony. "Let him figure it out."
     In another story painting Christie as a ruthless boss, Kelly remembered the last-minute cancellation on July 18, 2013, of meetings she had scheduled between the governor and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop.
     "No one is entitled to a fucking meeting," Christie yelled at Kelly the next day, according to Kelly's tearful testimony.
     Claiming that Christie's abusive treatment affected her work, Kelly testified about taking extra precautions to avoid the governor's wrath.
     When the New Jersey lieutenant governor considered attending a conference in late August 2013, Kelly said she struggled to confirm Sokolich would not also be in attendance — something for which she could later be blamed.
     "I was gun shy" after Christie's explosion on the canceled Fulop meetings, Kelly said. "I was scared."
     Christie also faced damaging testimony Friday from Mike DuHaime, a current member of the Trump campaign who had been the governor's chief political strategist in 2013.
     DuHaime this morning contradicted a press conference Christie gave on Dec. 13, 2013, in which he claimed to have no knowledge that any of his senior staffers were involved in the lane closures.
     Testifying that Christie had called him in the three days leading up to that announcement, DuHaime said he told the governor before the press conference about emails from Kelly indicating her pre-existing knowledge of the lane closures.
     Christie's Dec. 13 press conference announced Baroni's resignation from the Port Authority, just days after the agency had forced out Wildstein.
     DuHaime recalled informing Christie on Dec. 13 about Wildstein's concern that "certain other people were shirking responsibility" for the lane closures.
     Wildstein's implication, according to the testimony, was that blame should also fall to Kelly and Christie's campaign manager at the time, Bill Stepien.
     DuHaume testified that Christie appeared "taken aback" at this assertion.
     Wildstein testified earlier this month that his December meeting with DuHaime contradicted denials by both the strategist and the governor.
     Kelly, 44, is divorced with four children. She came to Christie's team after working for New Jersey Assemblyman David Russo, a Midland Park Republican.
     It was not until Wildstein pleaded guilty on May 1, 2015, that Kelly broke her silence about the lane shutdown, issuing a statement that called Wildstein a liar.
     "I am not guilty of these charges," Kelly said during her press conference in Livingston, the home town of both Christie and Wildstein. "I never ordered or conspired with David Wildstein to close or realign lanes of the bridge for any reason, much less for retribution."
     In her May 2015 statement, Kelly also lambasted a report compiled on the lane closures by Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, the law firm that Christie tapped to investigate the scandal.
     That report had painted Kelly as a neurotic, overwhelmed woman.
     "I am not stupid," Kelly said at the time. "I am not weepy, insecure, unqualified, or overwhelmed."
     The Gibson Dunn report also brought to light Kelly's relationship with Stepien, a fellow Christie staffer who is now a campaign official in Trump's presidential campaign.
     Stepien, who is five years younger than Kelly, held her former job as deputy chief of staff and head of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs in the Christie administration.
     The two became an item in April 2013, though it quickly ended in the late summer as Stepien transitioned to work for Christie's presidential campaign.
     Several witnesses in the trial have testified that Stepien knew of the lane shutdown as early as October 2013. He has not been called to testify but is on the prosecution's witness list.
     Testimony by Kelly's former subordinate, Christina Renna, described Kelly as hysterically crying in late 2013 as the scandal came out.
     Christie fired Kelly shortly thereafter on Jan. 9, 2014.
     Each day in trial, Kelly is ensconced by her legal team. Sometimes she wears a small grin as she listens to testimony from former colleagues and friends, sometimes a grimace. Most of the time, however, she is stone-faced and quiet.
     Prior to Friday's testimony, Kelly had only a couple of noticeable emotional outbursts during the trial. She silently cried while hearing Renna recount how reporters had hounded Kelly's children in the early days of the scandal.
     Kelly fought back tears again on Thursday when one of her character witnesses spoke of her son, Connor, who had been in the hospital.
     The "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" message is one of several that has hounded Kelly throughout the scandal.
     Texting with Wildstein about schoolchildren stuck in the four-day traffic, Kelly had asked if it's "wrong that I'm smiling?"
     Critchley chalked the remark up to "joking banter" during opening arguments.
     During the early part of her testimony, Kelly said she regarded Wildstein as her key contact at the Port Authority and one of Christie's inner-circle.
     "He came from Christie World," she told the jury. "He was not shy about his relationship with the governor and people close to the governor."
     Wildstein, the jury has learned over nearly six weeks of testimony, was longtime friends with Baroni, DuHaime, Stepien and former Christie spokesman Mike Drewniak, among others.
     The defense has taken pains to paint diminutive Kelly as a small cog in the massive Christie political machine. During opening statements, Critchley said Kelly had little input on policy decisions and was primarily a "scheduler" for Christie's office, helping in such tasks as arranging food for the governor's box at MetLife Stadium for Giants or Jets games.
     "Let's not elevate her to some grandiose position," Critchley had told the jury.
     On the stand Frday, Kelly volunteered a number of potentially embarrassing stories about Christie. Among various Port Authority events in 2013 that Christie used for political fodder, Kelly said, were the groundbreaking of a new PATH station in Harrison and the retooling of the Bayonne Bridge.
     Christie wanted to be photographed standing next to labor unions at those events while taking credit for creating jobs in New Jersey, Kelly testified.