Bridget Anne Kelly and her lawyer, Michael Critchley Jr., walk Oct. 24, 2016, toward the federal courthouse in Newark, N.J.(Photo: Kevin R. Wexler, The (Bergen County, N.J.) Record)
NEWARK, N.J. — As rumors about a political retribution plot persisted, Bridget Anne Kelly’s confidence that the George Washington Bridge lane closings were really part of a traffic study turned to panic as she suspected she was being set up to take a fall.
"I was petrified," Kelly testified Monday, again taking the witness stand in her own defense. "Everyone's livelihood depends on Chris Christie. Including mine."
But even as her email that said it was "time for some traffic problems," became public, the same email federal prosecutors say ordered the lane closures, Kelly said she was assured by her attorney at the time "that a job would be found for me" and "that I wouldn't have to worry about anything."
Christie fired Kelly the morning after that conversation and she hasn't worked since. That attorney, Walter Timpone, is now on the New Jersey Supreme Court, nominated by Christie and nearly three years later, Kelly is in federal court fighting charges. Kelly and Bill Baroni, a former Port Authority deputy executive director, are accused of working with former agency executive David Wildstein to wreak havoc on commuters to discipline the town's Democratic mayor Mark Sokolich for declining to publicly support Christie's re-election.
On the witness stand for the second day Monday, Kelly acknowledged that during her time as a deputy chief of staff to Christie, her office paid close mind to endorsements for his 2013 re-election bid. But Kelly said "absolutely not" when her attorney Michael Critchley asked if she punished Sokolich for not endorsing Christie.Christie, chief of staff told
To Kelly, the lane closures that began the week of Sept. 9, 2013, were done as part of a traffic study ordered by Wildstein, who she said was "the governor's guy" at the bi-state agency. Kelly said she had told Christie about the plan a month earlier and that there would be "tremendous traffic problems in Fort Lee." At the governor's direction, Kelly then told his chief of staff at the time, Kevin O'Dowd.
When Wildstein forwarded Kelly a text message from the mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, complaining of the "maddening" traffic and school children being delayed, she wrote back: "Is it wrong that I'm smiling?" and, "I feel badly about the kids. I guess." The response suggests Kelly rejoiced in the news. She said that wasn't the case.
A day earlier, Wildstein had reported to her that the first day of the study showed improved traffic at the "mainline" entrance to the bridge. And the purpose of the study, she said, was to lighten travel times for commuters crossing the span, for which Christie could claim credit.
Kelly explained that she had had “mixed feelings” about the mayor’s response. On one hand, she said, she was happy that the first day of what she believed was a traffic study had gone well, as Wildstein had reported to her, but on the other hand she felt sorry for the children stuck in traffic.
“I wasn’t sitting there smiling or gloating. I was happy for David and I should have used different words,” Kelly said.
Kelly has said she spoke with Christie the next day about the study, after a Sept. 11 memorial service. On Sept. 12, after a devastating fire in Seaside Park and Seaside Heights, Kelly said she followed up with the governor — the third conversation she says they had about the study.
Earlier that day, Kelly received an email from one of her employees recounting another worker's conversation with Sokolich, in which he said there were rumors in town that the lane closures were “retribution.” Kelly said she asked Christie if he wanted the office she oversaw, Intergovernmental Affairs, to get in touch with Sokolich.
“He said, no, let Wildstein handle it,” Kelly said. “I said, ‘He’s talking about government retribution or something like that.’ He said, ‘It’s a Port Authority project. Let Wildstein handle it.’”
Christie has denied having knowledge of the lane closures as they happened.Email interpretation
On that same email concerning the employee’s conversation with Sokolich, Kelly had replied “good,” suggesting satisfaction that the mayor was frustrated. But Kelly said she said “good” in response to a line in the email saying that the employee intended to get more information and speak to the mayor.
Kelly said she started getting confused on the final day of the lane closures, Sept. 13, after the Port Authority's executive director, Patrick Foye, reopened the lanes despite the pleas of Baroni to keep them closed. The port’s chairman at the time, David Samson, a close friend of Christie’s, had also gotten involved. Wildstein told Kelly that Samson was helping to “retaliate.”
“None of that made any sense to me,” Kelly said, because Wildstein was “emphatic” about the success of the traffic study. "This was totally contrary to anything he was telling me. I didn’t understand it at all.”
A column in The Record the following day, Sept. 14, further confused Kelly, she said. The column, like two others that week, had said there was no communication about the lanes between the Port Authority and Fort Lee. Kelly said Wildstein had assured her that that wasn’t the case and that the stories were inaccurate.
“Everything that David told me, there was no reason not to believe him,” Kelly said. “I was very confused.”Job in jeopardy
Kelly began to feel as if her job was in jeopardy. In addition to the governor and his chief of staff, Kelly said she spoke with Christie's top spokesman, Michael Drewniak, about the lane closures and a traffic study at the bridge. But none of them said they knew about the closures and allegations of political retribution as rumors swirled and reporters continued to ask questions, she said.
During a Dec. 2 news conference, Christie joked about the lane realignment when asked about it by a reporter. Then, on Dec. 12, O’Dowd called Kelly and asked her if she knew anything about the lanes and if she knew anything about retribution. Kelly said she told him no, only that there was a traffic study.
The following morning, Dec. 13, Christie called a senior staff meeting in his office and said that if anyone knew anything about the lane closures they should see O’Dowd or his chief counsel at the time, Charlie McKenna.
“I was like, he knew about Fort Lee — he, meaning the governor. Kevin O’Dowd knew about Fort Lee, Mike Drewniak knew about Fort Lee,” she said.
Kelly added, "I panicked when everyone else forgot that they knew about it."
When Christie told reporters during the news conference that he had had that meeting and been assured by his staff that no one had involvement in the lane closures or that they were done as political payback, Kelly texted O’Dowd, “let me know what you want me to do,” according to evidence. O’Dowd did not respond, she said, but she wanted to speak with him because “the governor’s words didn’t match my actions.”
“I just knew that it wasn’t going to be a good thing for me,” Kelly said.'Losing my mind'
On Jan. 8, 2014, published documents showed Kelly wrote the "traffic problems" email. She was told not to come to the office that day, she said. Emails flooded her inbox, reporters swarmed her neighborhood and, she said, a news truck followed her daughter home from school.
Although "I felt like I was losing my mind," Kelly said she continued working from her phone.
Later that day, Kelly got a call from her lawyer at the time, Walter Timpone, who said "was told to call me."
Timpone is a Supreme Court associate justice who was sworn in earlier this year. He severed ties with Kelly later that January because of a conflict of interest. But on Jan. 8, Kelly said, he notified her that she would get phone call the next morning from Christie's two incoming top lawyers to tell her she was fired. But he also told her "it would be OK" and that another job would be found for her, she said.
Timpone declined to comment Monday.
Kelly got the call the next morning that she was fired. She was "devastated," she said. She asked to talk to Christie to "maybe remind him of what he knew, remind him of conversations we had." But she was denied access to the governor.
"At that moment, it was all over and I had done everything I needed to do," Kelly said. "And it seemed that there was an alternate universe going on. I felt by myself on an island."
Christie then went before reporters in a State House news conference to announce her firing and why he wouldn't speak with Kelly.
"She was not given the opportunity to explain to me why she lied because it was so obvious that she had," he said.
Follow Dustin Racioppi on Twitter: @dracioppi
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