Christie pals ap­proved grid­lock, key wit­ness says

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - By David Porter

The 2013 traf­fic mess at the Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Bridge is de­scribed as a po­lit­i­cal re­venge scheme.

NE­WARK, N.J. >> A po­lit­i­cal re­venge scheme to cre­ate traf­fic grid­lock near the Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Bridge in 2013 was ap­proved by two for­mer al­lies of Repub­li­can Gov. Chris Christie on trial for fraud and shared with Christie’s then-cam­paign man­ager, the gov­ern­ment’s key wit­ness tes­ti­fied Mon­day.

David Wild­stein also told jurors how he re­ceived the now-fa­mous “Time for some traf­fic prob­lems in Fort Lee” email from Christie’s then­deputy chief of staff, Brid­get Kelly, on Aug. 13, 2013, about a month be­fore the town next to the bridge was en­gulfed in four days of epic traf­fic jams.

Kelly, who is ex­pected to tes­tify in her de­fense, has pre­vi­ously said some of her emails and texts from that pe­riod were meant to be sar­cas­tic and were taken out of con­text.

But Wild­stein, a for­mer of­fi­cial at the Port Author­ity of New York and New Jersey who has pleaded guilty, told jurors Mon­day he as­sumed it meant it was time to put the scheme in ac­tion to pun­ish Fort Lee’s Demo­cratic mayor, Mark Sokolich.

“I un­der­stood that to mean it was time to change the lanes con­fig­u­ra­tion at the up­per level of the Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Bridge in or­der to cre­ate traf­fic in the bor­ough of Fort Lee,” Wild­stein said. “We had had jok­ing emails be­fore. I did not think she was jok­ing.”

Ac­cord­ing to Wild­stein, the email set in mo­tion a chain of events that ul­ti­mately led to last year’s in­dict­ment of Kelly and for­mer Port Author­ity ex­ec­u­tive Bill Ba­roni on fraud, con­spir­acy and civil rights de­pri­va­tion charges.

In the days and weeks that fol­lowed, he tes­ti­fied, he went to Port Author­ity of­fi­cials and sold them the story that the lane re­align­ment was part of a traf­fic study. But he said he told at least two peo­ple the true rea­son: Bill Stepien, Christie’s man­ager for his 2013 re-elec­tion cam­paign, and Wil­liam “Pat” Schu­ber, a Port Author­ity com­mis­sioner nom­i­nated by Christie in 2011.

Schu­ber tes­ti­fied be­fore a New Jersey leg­isla­tive com­mit­tee in 2014 that he had no prior knowl­edge of the plot.

Demo­cratic state Sen. Loretta Wein­berg, who cochaired the com­mit­tee, called Mon­day’s rev­e­la­tion “per­son­ally dis­ap­point­ing” and said Schu­ber should re­sign if Wild­stein is telling the truth.

A mes­sage left for Schu­ber at the Port Author­ity wasn’t im­me­di­ately re­turned Mon­day.

Christie hasn’t been charged, but prose­cu­tors say Wild­stein will tes­tify that he told the gover­nor about the plot on the third of the four days of traf­fic chaos. Christie has de­nied that.

Both de­fen­dants say Wild­stein con­ceived and car­ried out the scheme in Septem­ber 2013. The bridge, one of the world’s busiest, spans the Hud­son River and con­nects New Jersey with New York City.

Last week, Wild­stein tes­ti­fied that Christie’s of­fice used the Port Author­ity as a source of po­lit­i­cal fa­vors for lo­cal Demo­cratic of­fi­cials whose en­dorse­ments were sought for his 2013 re-elec­tion. Christie wound up win­ning eas­ily.

Wild­stein said Christie and Stepien were among those who dis­cussed the strat­egy at a meet­ing about Christie’s re-elec­tion.

Christie cut ties with Stepien in Jan­uary 2014 af­ter emails re­leased by a state leg­isla­tive panel showed him re­fer­ring to Fort Lee’s mayor as an “id­iot.” Stepien had just been selected to run the state Repub­li­can party and had been in line to run what be­came Christie’s failed pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

He now works for Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Don­ald Trump’s cam­paign.

Stepien’s at­tor­ney, Kevin Marino, said in a state­ment that prose­cu­tors in­ves­ti­gated for more than a year and didn’t charge his client. “That is be­cause Mr. Stepien did not en­gage in any wrong­do­ing,” Marino said. He added that Stepien had not role in plan­ning, ap­prov­ing or cov­er­ing up the scheme.

Marino has said Stepien told Christie in mid-De­cem­ber 2013 that he was ad­vised be­fore­hand that the lane changes were for a traf­fic study and was one of many “crazy ideas” brought to him by Wild­stein. Christie told re­porters the fol­low­ing day that no one close to him had prior knowl­edge of the op­er­a­tion.

Kelly and Ba­roni say the gov­ern­ment has twisted fed­eral law to turn their ac­tions into crimes. They also have said other peo­ple with more power and in­flu­ence were in­volved in the lane clo­sures but aren’t be­ing pros­e­cuted.

Wild­stein is sched­uled to re­turn to the stand on Tues­day.

JULIO CORTEZ—AP PHOTO

David Wild­stein ar­rives at Martin Luther King Jr. Fed­eral Court­house for a hear­ing on Fri­day in Ne­wark, N.J.

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