NEWARK — Bridget Anne Kelly, one of two defendants on trial for charges related to the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal, said in court Friday that she personally told Gov. Chris Christie about the closures a month before they occurred.
She also said that she came to fear the governor and that, on one occasion, he threw a water bottle at her, hitting her on the arm.
Taking the witness stand in U.S. District Court, Kelly — a former deputy chief of staff to Christie — insisted that she had no idea the lane closures were part of a scheme to exact political revenge on a local mayor who had refused to endorse Christie.
Rather, Kelly said, she was told that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was planning a “traffic study” that could ease congestion over the bridge, which the governor would be able to claim credit for.
Kelly said she was asked by David Wildstein, the admitted mastermind of the scheme and at the time an official at the Port, to speak to Christie about the study because it would cause some “traffic problems” in Fort Lee, where the bridge is located.
“Apparently, the Port Authority is going to be doing a traffic study in Fort Lee,” Kelly said she told the governor on Aug. 12, 2013. “I explained the access lanes to him. He said, ‘OK. When are they doing this?’ I said, ‘I believe imminently.’”
Kelly said she told Christie that Wildstein said there would be issues with congestion in Fort Lee as a result of the study.
“He said ‘alright,’” Kelly said. “He didn’t really react. He said, ‘That’s fine.’ He said, ‘What’s our relationship with [Fort Lee] Mayor [Mark] Sokolich?’ I really didn’t know.”
She said she also told Christie about Wildstein’s plan for the governor to claim credit for the study if it was successful, holding a press event — possibly with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — to celebrate and “to really thank the governor for doing this study.”
“The governor said, ‘That’s typical Wally,’” Kelly recalled, referring to Wildstein by his pen name from when he was the anonymous editor of PolitickerNJ.
In a statement Friday night, Christie press secretary Brian Murray denied Kelly’s claims. “As the Governor has said since January 9, 2014, the Governor had no knowledge prior to or during these lane realignments, and he had no role in authorizing them. Anything said to the contrary is simply untrue,” he said.
Kelly said Christie also told her she should discuss the plan with Kevin O’Dowd, his chief of staff. The governor also asked to have lunch with Kelly the next day, she said.
Kelly testified she was worried about planned lunch — she’d never had lunch with the governor, and wanted to make sure she had an answer for everything.
She said she reached out to Matt Mowers, a former staffer in the governor’s office who was then working on his campaign, to find out what kind of relationship the administration had with Sokolich, a Democrat. It was a good relationship, she was told, but Sokolich had declined to endorse Christie in his reelection campaign.
Kelly said she spoke to O’Dowd the next morning about the traffic study.
“He said he was ‘OK’ with it,” she said. “And he said, ‘As long as the governor’s fine, I’m good with it.’”
That morning, she sent Wildstein the now-infamous email, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
She said that email had no nefarious undertones — she was using Wildstein’s words about what would happen when the traffic study began. She told her attorney, Michael Critchley, the email was “absolutely not” a “code for punishment.”
“I sent off a text message parroting exactly what David told me: There’s going to be ‘traffic problems in Fort Lee.’ Exactly what I told the governor,” she said on the witness stand, visibly emotional as she talked about the email.
The testimony directly contradicts claims by the governor, whose office stated in 2014 that Christie had “absolutely no prior knowledge of the lane closures before they happened.”
Kelly’s lunch with Christie turned out to be uneventful, she said, with Christie spending most of the time chatting with Deborah Gramiccioni, who headed the governor’s authorities unit.
After the lane closures began, Kelly said Christie spoke with Wildstein about the closures at the Sept. 11 memorial event in Manhattan. When he returned to Trenton later that day, Kelly says they spoke for several minutes about the conversation.
“He said that he spoke to Wildstein and that they were doing, the traffic study was this week,” she said. “And he said, ‘the mayor had reached out to the Port Authority but Wildstein told the governor he was handling it.”
During that time, Sokolich had been repeatedly trying to get in touch with Bill Baroni, the Christie-appointed deputy executive director of the Port Authority and Kelly’s co-defendant in the case. Kelly said she told the governor she knew the mayor had reached out about a “safety issue,” but that Wildstein had also assured her he was dealing with it.
“The governor said that the Port Authority was handling it, that David said he’d been in touch with Fort Lee,” she recalled.
Kelly and Baroni were indicted last May on charges of conspiracy, fraud and civil rights violations.
Christie, who is currently a top adviser to Donald Trump, has denied any knowledge or involvement in this incident.
Wildstein, who was the Port’s director of interstate capital projects, has already pleaded guilty and implicated the two others.
That same year, Kelly said Friday, Christie put her in charge of setting up a “mayor’s day” with Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop — another Democrat whose endorsement Christie allies had been seeking. The idea was the new mayor would be able to have a series of meetings with top members of the administration.
Before it happened, though, Kelly said O’Dowd told her to have the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs cancel all the meetings. She said she was given no explanation.
“He told me they should be canceled one after the other by each department,” she said of O’Dowd, before again becoming emotional.
She said she later learned there was to be no communication with the mayor and they were to “ice” him.
At one point, she said, the governor himself gave her that direction.
“He said, ‘No one’s entitled to a fucking meeting,’” Kelly recalled through tears. “I just knew he didn’t want anyone meeting with Steve Fulop and I didn’t know why and I didn’t want to ask.”
Kelly said she came to fear Christie.
On a separate occasion, she testified the governor became angry at her as she talked about setting up a meeting to discuss a major fire in Seaside Heights. She said the governor could run the event, handing the discussion over to various Cabinet members to talk about the details.
“He had a water bottle in his hand and he said, ‘What do you think I am, a fucking game show host?” Kelly said from the stand through tears. “And he threw his water bottle. I moved out of the way, but it hit my arm.”
“Were you afraid of the governor?” Critchley asked.
“Yes,” Kelly replied.
“He’s a big tough guy, eh?” Critchley asked.
“Yes,” she said, still crying.