The prosecution’s case in the Bridgegate trial has been living with a possibly fatal flaw for weeks–and, on Friday, that flaw threatened both the chances for convicting at least one defendant and also the credibility of the two-year federal investigation into the closing of entrance lanes at the George Washington Bridge in September, 2013. It has to do with an oddly worded email:
“I have an issue to discuss with you, extraordinarily weird even by my standards.”
Nearly a month ago, David Wildstein, the government’s chief witness against two allies of Gov. Chris Christie, told federal prosecutors he sent that email to Bridget Anne Kelly, one of the defendants in the case, on August 12, 2013. Wildstein was working for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and Kelly was a deputy chief of staff in Christie’s office.
Wildstein said the message led to a telephone call with Kelly–but he couldn’t remember while he was testifying for the government exactly what he meant by the strange message and, more, he couldn’t remember what was said during the telephone call with Kelly that followed. On the stand last month, Wildstein repeatedly apologized but he just couldn’t remember what that message and call were all about.
Sounds strange. Wildstein had few memory problems while he testified for the government against Kelly and Bill Baroni, the former Port Authority deputy executive director and the trial’s other defendant.
On Friday, during the first hours of Bridget Kelly’s testimony in her own defense, she certainly remembered what that “extraordinarily weird” subject was: The so-called traffic study that would lead to massive traffic jams at the bridge–and, indirectly, to the downfall of Christie’s presidential ambitions.
“He (Wildstein) wanted Christie to be able to tout he had helped all those commuters,” Kelly said.
This wasn’t about punishing the mayor of Fort Lee–the government’s theory and the thrust of Wildstein’s testimony–it was about promoting Christie’s campaign among commuters using the bridge.
She said the study–which she believed to be genuine–would ultimately be used for a campaign event in which Christie–possibly accompanied by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo– just weeks from the 2013 election, would announce he had successfully reduced morning rush hour traffic, the closest thing to a miracle a New Jersey politician could pull off. The event would include signs and banners hanging from the bridge’s rafters thanking the governor for helping the weary commuters.
“Extraordinarily weird”? Yes. Certainly weirder than the simple idea of a traffic study. Certainly weirder than punishing a small-town Democratic mayor who wouldn’t endorse Christie’s re-election bid.
Wildstein, Kelly said, wanted her to run the idea past Christie whose office was only feet away from hers. She said she did talk to Christie–and she also warned him that Wildstein said the study would require changes in the entrance ramps leading to the GWB toll booths and that would cause temporary traffic jams until drivers adjusted to the new configuration. She said Wildstein had repeatedly used a phrase–“traffic problems in Fort Lee”– and, through tears, Kelly testified she “parroted” the same phrase in her conversation with the governor. It would cause “traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
“He said he was fine with it,” Kelly said of Christie’s response.
The following day, she testified, armed with the approval of the governor and his chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd, Kelly wrote back to Wildstein in what has become the scandal’s most famous and, for Kelly, one the most potentially damning email line:
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
The prosecution says that’s Kelly giving the order for disrupting bridge traffic to punish Sokolich. Her defense says that’s Kelly responding with the news of Christie’s and O’Dowd’s approval of the “weird” plan.
Wildstein, of course, could clear that all up simply by remembering what transpired during that telephone conversation–but he simply cannot remember, no matter how hard he tries. Right.
In any event, in a few weeks after that conversation with Kelly, Wildstein said, he started the “traffic study,” which required a reduction of from three to one in the number of access lanes leading from Fort Lee to the toll booths at the upper deck of the bridge, followed by a massive traffic tie-up that lasted for days, followed by a cover-up, a federal investigation, indictments, and this trial.
Many questions remain unanswered–but clearly the biggest one so far is how could Wildstein ever have forgotten what he meant when he wrote to Kelly that he wanted to talk to her about something “extraordinarily weird”? And how could he have forgotten what was said in the telephone conversation that followed the email?
That’s just not credible.
Not credible and yet so crucial to the government’s case that all of this was aimed at punishing a recalcitrant mayor. Kelly’s explanation takes her yet another step toward reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors–just because Wildstein has no explanation and he should have had one. It takes away at least some of the sting of her own email–
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Kelly already was several steps toward acquittal. The prosecution never could prove she was a power player in Christie’s inner circle–that, on her own, she could make policy decisions. She never met with Wildstein and co-defendant Baroni to talk about the plan, or even had a conference call, despite the allegation of a conspiracy. She was not part of the cover-up that followed.
She’s hardly home free, however. Kelly also is the author of snarky comments about “smiling” because Fort Lee children are stuck on school buses–children who, after all, are only “the children of Barbara Buono voters.” How she responds to questions about those messages–especially on cross-examination–will determine her fate.
Kelly’s testimony, if it survives what is expected to be a withering cross-examination from federal prosecutors, also changes the narrative of the government’s case–and the common wisdom about what happened at the GWB three years ago.
The prosecutors have said the “traffic study” was used to tie up Fort Lee to punish its mayor, Mark Sokolich. But Kelly, like Baroni, suggested the study would be used as a cover for a planned attempt by Christie to shut down the local access lanes and thereby improve access on the routes taken by most commuters–the I-95/and I-80 approaches to the upper deck.
Kelly testified that, when she told Christie on Sept. 11 that Sokolich was trying to get through to someone to complain about the traffic tie-ups, the governor said she should “let the Port Authority handle it.”
No one has yet explained why Christie would think it so important to get Sokolich’s endorsement for his own re-election. Yes, he wanted to run up his margin in the coming election–but Fort Lee is hardly a big prize. It just seems like so much of an over-reaction.
Oh, yes–about over-reactions.
The most stunning part of Kelly’s testimony was her tearful depiction of how he treated her during a trip to Seaside Heights where–the same week as the traffic tie-up–many boardwalk businesses were destroyed by a fire.
Kelly said Christie asked her to set up a meeting with him, his cabinet members and business owners who had lost property to the blaze. She set up the meeting but when she said Christie would introduce the cabinet members to the business owners, Christie blew his top.
“What do you think I am, a fucking quiz show host?” he shouted and hurled a water bottle at her, striking her arm, she testified.
Most lawyers–and certainly, like Christie, all former federal prosecutors–would know that is assault and battery.
Christie has denied knowing about the September lane closures. He did again Friday. He denied the other allegations in her testimony.