Bridget Anne Kelly, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's former deputy chief of staff, arrives at federal court in Newark on Friday, Oct. 21, 2016, for the George Washington Bridge lane-closure trial.(Photo: Chris Pedota, The (Bergen County, N.J.) Record)
NEWARK — Bridget Anne Kelly, the former deputy to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie accused of choking access to the George Washington Bridge to punish a Democratic mayor, said Friday that she spoke with Christie twice about the 2013 lane closures — before and after she sent the infamous “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email.
After nearly three years of silence — besides a brief news conference following her indictment — Kelly took the witness stand in her own criminal trial and told her side of the story regarding what happened before and during the week of gridlock. She described her role in the administration as a sort of stagehand, responsible for making sure the governor’s public events were properly organized and his social events were catered to his liking. And Kelly tearfully told the jury that she was scared of Christie after receiving profane put-downs and, in one instance, being hit by a water bottle he threw in a fit of pique.
Kelly’s testimony came in the fifth week of the trial in which she and Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority, are charged with nine counts related to the lane closures. They are accused of working with Baroni’s deputy, David Wildstein, to reduce access lanes to the bridge to retaliate against Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, for not endorsing Christie’s re-election.
Christie, who has not been charged, has steadfastly denied having knowledge of the lane closures before or in the several months after they happened.
On the witness stand Friday, Kelly, 44, said Wildstein mentioned to her in early 2011 that the access lanes to the bridge in Fort Lee were “something that at some point the Port Authority was going to look at.”
Then in June 2013, Wildstein sent Kelly an email with the subject line “Fort Lee” and asked her to call him about his “number one item.” When they spoke, Wildstein told Kelly that he had spoken with engineers at the Port Authority and the agency’s police department “to put together what would be a study or a review of these lanes,” she said. He said to be sure she “ran this by the governor,” she said.
She spoke with Wildstein again on Aug. 12, but Wildstein had added a new detail to the plan.
Wildstein said that he wanted to increase the number of toll booths available to drivers entering the upper level of the bridge by taking two of three access lanes that were used by vehicles traveling from Fort Lee and switching them over to “mainline” traffic. At the conclusion of the study, Wildstein wanted Christie to hold a joint press conference at the bridge with Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, where the governors could take credit for reducing congestion at a vital artery linking the two states.
“I thought it was a little crazy,” Kelly said. “He wanted signs. He wanted banners.”
Kelly said she told Christie of the upcoming traffic study. He said “OK,” asked when it would happen and then inquired about Fort Lee’s mayor.
“He wanted to know what our relationship was and how are things with Mayor Sokolich,” Kelly said, and told the court she didn’t have an answer ready.
In December 2013, several months after the lanes were closed, Christie held a news conference where he called the lane closures “not that big a deal.”
“I don’t ever remember meeting the mayor of Fort Lee and I certainly don’t remember getting any briefings at any time from the campaign staff that this was someone who was on our radar screen as a potential endorsement, so that’s why none of this makes any sense to me,” he said at the time.
At another December press conference that year, Christie responded with thick sarcasm when he was asked whether he had anything to do with the lane closures.
“I moved the cones, actually unbeknownst to everybody,” he said.
Kelly, on the witness stand, said when she told Christie of the plan Wildstein had proposed, “The governor said that’s typical Wally,” Kelly said.
Christie then told Kelly that the two should get together for lunch the next day if her schedule was free, she testified. She was looking forward to the lunch but was also “a little nervous,” since she had never had lunch with the governor before and she worried about being prepared for any questions or status update requests from him. So around 10:30 that night, she texted Christie chief of staff at the time, Kevin O’Dowd, to tell him she wanted to give him “foresight” on “a couple of things,” which she said included the traffic study in Fort Lee.
The next day, Aug. 13, Kelly and Christie met for lunch, along with his then-deputy chief for policy, Deborah Gramiccioni. That was the same day Kelly sent Wildstein the “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email, to which he replied “got it.”
Federal prosecutors say that the email triggered the lane closures to punish Sokolich, but Kelly said it was “absolutely not” an order to block access to the bridge for retribution. The message was sent “in a very quick manner” using words that Wildstein had often used to describe the anticipated effect of the study and other Port Authority matters, she said.
“Traffic problems were just two words that went together when you talked to David about the Port Authority,” Kelly said. Addressing the jury later, she said, “If I said time for a traffic study in Fort Lee, we wouldn’t all know each other.”
Kelly said she talked to Christie again about the lane closures on Sept. 11, 2013. She told him that calls had come in to a colleague about traffic complaints at the bridge.
“I said that the mayor said that the study was causing a safety issue in Fort Lee. The governor said that the Port Authority was handling, that David had been in touch with Fort Lee, which is exactly what David had told me,” Kelly said.
Kelly’s testimony Friday followed that of Mike DuHaime, a friend and adviser to Christie who contradicted Christie’s assertion during a Dec. 13, 2013 news conference. Christie had been asked if he knew that no one on his staff carried out the lane closures for retribution. Christie said he had spoken to his staff and “that if anyone had any knowledge about this that they needed to come forward to me and tell me about it.”
DuHaime said he told Christie that he had been informed by Wildstein that Kelly and Christie’s former campaign manager, Bill Stepien, were “aware” of the lane closures.
“He already knew that information” the day of the news conference, DuHaime said.
Kelly choked up at several points during her testimony when, under questioning by her attorney Michael Critchley, she portrayed herself as a sincere, down-to-earth mother who only took a job in Trenton, in 2010, so that she could look after herself as her marriage of 15 years fell apart.
She recalled being with Christie during and after a fire in Seaside Park the week of the lane closures. Kelly was also fielding emails about the lane closures from Wildstein and other Christie staffers in the hours before traveling to the beach town, documents show.
When Kelly suggested that Christie should open a public event and then pass control to other officials, Christie threw a water bottle at Kelly, shouting: “What do you think I am, a (expletive) gameshow host?” Kelly said the bottle struck her arm.
Critchley asked Kelly, “You’re afraid of the governor?”
With tears in her eyes, Kelly said, “Yes. Yes.”
Critchley then asked, “He’s a big tough guy, eh?”
“Yes,” Kelly said.
Follow Dustin Racioppi on Twitter: @dracioppi