Bridgegate co-defendant Bridget Kelly survived her first full day of cross-examination without falling into a ditch of contradictions–but slowly grinding questioning from Assistant US Attorney Vikas Khanna wore thin spots in her defense. Could everything she did and wrote be excused by her fear of Gov. Chris Christie, her misplaced trust in political con-man David Wildstein, and her vision of herself as a vulnerable and minor player who nonetheless held a job that gave her direct access to the most powerful politicians in New Jersey?
“The title carries a lot more influence than I had,” said Kelly, 44, as she described her quick ascent within the governor’s office to the position of deputy chief of staff, a job previously held by one of Christie’s closest friends and, later, campaign manager, Bill Stepien. “I am not Bill Stepien.”
Because if she were Stepien, if she had the power and access he did, then Bridget Kelly–as the prosecution contends– would indeed be in a position to order subordinates to cause “traffic problems in Fort Lee.” But she has portrayed herself as a “functionary,” a “logistical” person with little expertise in politics who set up meetings and ordered food–and, after a violent run-in with the governor she served, did so very, very cautiously.
Stepien now works on the Trump campaign.
Kelly generally has been a strong witness for her cause, answering directly without the sort of memory problems that plagued her co-defendant Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority, and Wildstein, a Christie pal who was the governor’s political commissar at the bistate agency. Baroni and Kelly are charged with closing down access lanes to the George Washington Bridge to punish the mayor of Fort Lee for refusing to endorse Christie for reelection in 2013.
No, her problem is not memory. Her problem is she has left herself little wiggle room when Khanna, the prosecutor, asks questions–usually based on emails or texts–that show her as more of a political activist than she would like to portray. Her credibility is being nickeled-and-dimed because she is not the political innocent she wants the jury to believe.
As when she called Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop “annoying” because he won a running race in Belmar and issued a statement saying he wanted to use the money–a $5,000 purse–to donate to recreation programs in his town.
Indeed, despite trying to distance herself from the Christie administration’s efforts to punish Fulop for not endorsing the governor, Kelly had to admit she was “buying into the mentality” that saw Christie’s rivals as her enemies.
“The mindset was that he”–Fulop–“was always trying to grab headlines,” she said.
But this doesn’t help Kelly. If, as it appears, she was becoming every bit as political–if less successful– as her predecessor, Stepien, then it was possible she had played a major role–as the government has charged–in punishing another Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee, for not endorsing Christie.
“Absolutely not,” Kelly insisted–forgetting, perhaps, that she had said, in talking about Fulop, that, “It was hard not to”–become political–“when you spend so much time in that office.”
She was head of Intergovernment Affairs (IGA), a supposedly non-political office designed to help local officials. In reality, however, it became the center of Christie’s political operation, tracking the favors done for local politicians, adding up the points the governor had gained with them, timing his requests for endorsement–and, perhaps, designing punishments for recalcitrants like Fulop and Sokolich.
Kelly repeatedly said some of her emails and texts contained an “unfortunate choice of words.” None, of course, more unfortunate than those she exchanged to Wildstein about traffic problems in Fort Lee.
Khanna scored some points with his questions about “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee”–the government contends that was Kelly giving orders to Wildstein to start a “traffic study” that would close lanes leading to toll booths at the George Washington Bridge. She should have said a “traffic study,” she said.
But Khanna wanted to know why she used that word “problems.” That suggested she wanted to cause trouble for Sokolich, didn’t it? No, she insisted, repeating her story that, the day before she sent that email, she had told Christie of Wildstein’s plans.
Christie, she said, was “fine” with the traffic study–but, and it was a but Khanna pounced on, first the governor said, she should clear it with Kevin O’Dowd, his chief of staff and her boss, and then find out what sort of political relationship he, Christie, had with Sokolich.
She said she did both of those things–but here was the catch: She sent that damning email before she talked to O’Dowd or checked on Sokolich’s political popularity with Christie. At 7:34 in the morning the next day.
“How could you be ok with it before you talked to O’Dowd and before you learned what was the governor’s relationship with Mayor Sokolich?” asked Khanna.
“One didn’t qualify the other,” she answered. She felt she already had the governor’s approval and didn’t have to wait for anything else. Weak.
But Khanna never was able to create a picture in the juror’s minds of Kelly actually ordering the traffic jams.
The other message Khanna used against her was an exchange with Wildstein that began with a forwarded message from Sokolich, pleading for help and saying children were having problems getting to the first day of school, stuck on school buses.
“Is it wrong that I am smiling?” she asked Wildstein in the text exchange.
“No,” replied Wildstein.
She replied, “I feel badly about the kids.” She waited a moment, then added, “I guess.”
Wildstein replied–in probably the most cynical of all Bridgegate lines–“These are the children of Barbara Buono voters.”
Buono was the Democratic gubernatorial candidate who, thanks to Christie’s political operation (that included Kelly), was betrayed by prominent Democrats in New Jersey. The chance to sit in the governor’s box at football games was just too strong a pull on party loyalty and principled judgment among many Democrats.
In what was probably her worst moment on the stand Tuesday, Kelly said the smiling she described in the email had nothing to do with the inconvenience and discomfort visited upon the children of Fort Lee.
Ok, maybe–but then she added:
“I was pleased for Mr. Wildstein that this traffic study was working and would lead to a big event for the governor.” An event in which Christie would take credit for reducing traffic at the GWB just in time for the election.
But then it must have occurred to Kelly this might seem unbelievable. Or, maybe, she saw someone on the jury shake her head in doubt. Because then Kelly said, “I know it’s been portrayed as whatever other people want it to be” and then again insisted, “I’m not smiling about children being delayed going to school.”
More cross-examination today.