NEWARK, N.J. — Prosecutors in the George Washington Bridge lane-closing case against two former allies of New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie won an early victory Wednesday when a judge ruled they can seek to show the defendants engaged in a pattern of heavy-handed tactics against political foes.
The government contends former Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly and former bridge authority executive Bill Baroni, a Christie appointee, weren’t novices at political retribution when they allegedly had bridge lanes realigned three years ago to cause gridlock and punish a Democratic mayor who declined to endorse Christie’s re-election.
They are charged with wire fraud, conspiracy, civil rights violations and fraudulently using the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge.
Christie, currently a top adviser to GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, wasn’t charged but could be subpoenaed to testify.
U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton ruled Wednesday prosecutors can introduce evidence of dealings between the defendants and Democratic Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, who also chose not to endorse Christie.
Cancelled meetings and “radio silence” toward Fulop mimicked later actions — and even phraseology — by the defendants toward Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, whose town suffered massive traffic jams because of the lane realignment, prosecutors said.
Sokolich’s treatment “wasn’t isolated, wasn’t accidental,” Assistant U.S. Attorney David Feder argued.
Though both defense attorneys had previously sought to exclude the Fulop evidence, Wednesday’s hearing exposed a rift as Michael Critchley, representing Kelly, said he wouldn’t oppose the evidence being included. Critchley has contended higher-ups in Christie’s office, including the governor, were behind the Fulop strategy.
Critchley and Michael Baldassare, Baroni’s attorney, also diverged on whether a contemporaneous email from the Port Authority’s executive director denouncing the lane closures should be admitted as evidence.
Baldassare called the differences “not that important” and said they wouldn’t change his approach to the case.
Baldassare attached far greater significance to evidence he said he received this week from the government. While he didn’t describe or even characterize the new evidence, outside the courtroom he called it “profoundly significant to the defense.”
Wigenton denied Baldassare’s motion for a one-week delay to consider the new evidence before opening statements, which remain scheduled for Sept. 19.
The judge also ruled jurors can consider text messages between Kelly and former Port Authority official David Wildstein, who has pleaded guilty and will testify for the government, in which they apparently joke about causing traffic jams to inconvenience a rabbi who had displeased Wildstein.
The texts were sent about a week after Kelly’s infamous “time for traffic problems in Fort Lee” email to Wildstein, and about two weeks before the Fort Lee lane closures.
Prosecutors also can introduce a video of Baroni’s testimony before a state legislative committee, Wigenton ruled, in which Baroni claimed the lane closures were part of a traffic study.
Baldassare had sought to have the audio and a text transcript of the hearing introduced, and argued the video was incomplete and featured political sparring between Baroni, a former state senator, and other legislators that could be taken out of context.