Ex-Christie aide: 'Traffic problems' email wasn't payback
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) -- A federal prosecutor grilled a former aide to Gov. Chris Christie on her words and deeds surrounding the 2013 George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal Tuesday, seeking to poke holes in her portrayal of herself as unaware of the alleged political retaliation plot and too frightened of her superiors to come forward.
The daylong cross-examination of Bridget Kelly pitted the former deputy chief of staff to the Republican governor against what amounted to an electronic version of herself: emails and text messages she sent and received before and during the September 2013 lane realignment at the bridge connecting New Jersey and New York, which caused epic gridlock in the town of Fort Lee.
Kelly and Bill Baroni, a former executive with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the bridge's operator, are charged with crimes including misusing Port Authority property to create traffic jams to punish Fort Lee's mayor, Democrat Mark Sokolich, for not endorsing Christie's re-election.
Of the two, Kelly gained more notoriety when emails surfaced in 2014 because she sent the now-infamous "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" message to former Port Authority official David Wildstein. Wildstein, a former political blogger and high school classmate of Christie's, pleaded guilty and testified against Kelly and Baroni.
Christie has consistently denied any knowledge of the plot or the lane closures while they were going on and has not been charged, though Kelly testified Monday she told him a month before they happened that they were to be part of a traffic study. She also testified that she talked to him about them twice while they were ongoing.
On cross-examination, Kelly repeated her direct testimony from Friday that she used a poor choice of words in the email to Wildstein. Kelly testified she believed it was a legitimate traffic study that would eventually improve traffic flow over the bridge, considered the country's busiest.
"'Problem' doesn't mean study, does it?" pushed back Assistant U.S. Attorney Vikas Khanna.
"It meant that would be the effect" of the traffic study, Kelly said, adding, "David had told me the benefits were going to outweigh the inconvenience."
Khanna said: "If you are creating problems in Fort Lee, you are making things worse in Fort Lee."
Kelly also defended a text exchange with Wildstein on the second of four days of the lane realignments in which she wrote, "Why is it wrong that I am smiling?" She said she was referring to a conversation she'd had with Wildstein when he told her the traffic study was going well.
"Nowhere did you say anything about a traffic study," Khanna said.
Khanna also punctuated his questions about the text and emails by eliciting that Kelly deleted them on her own. Kelly has testified that she deleted them months later when it appeared others who had knowledge of the closures weren't being truthful.
"I was scared and I didn't know what was happening," she said. "When everyone started forgetting what they knew, I started deleting, yes."
Khanna also sought to demonstrate Kelly and Baroni collaborated to retaliate against a different Democratic mayor before allegedly using the same tactic against Sokolich.
Kelly testified she was told by superiors - "screamed at," in her words - on orders from Christie, to cancel scheduled meetings with Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop in the summer of 2013. Fulop was seen as a potential Christie endorser, Kelly testified, but when it became clear it wasn't going to work out, she was told to cancel the meetings and have no more contact with him.
Prosecutors contend Kelly, Baroni and Wildstein employed the same phrase - "radio silence" - in describing how both mayors would be ignored.
Striking a defiant tone, Kelly said Wildstein's "radio silence" email, sent during September 2013 as Sokolich made increasing desperate pleas for help, "didn't make a whole lot of sense to me."
"Mayor Fulop was 'iced,' you are correct, on orders from the governor," Kelly told Khanna. "There was no reason to ignore Mayor Sokolich. To compare him to what was going on with Mayor Fulop is just wrong."