Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Wildstein Says Christie Conspired with Cuomo

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Wildstein Says Christie Conspired with Cuomo

Article excerpt

As reporters and lawmakers clamored for answers about the unannounced lane closures at the George Washington Bridge, Governor Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo agreed that the Port Authority would issue a report falsely attributing the debacle to a traffic study, the trial's star witness testified Tuesday.

David Wildstein, a former agency executive who has pleaded guilty and admitted his role in the payback scheme, told jurors in federal court in Newark it was his understanding that the two governors discussed putting together a report in October 2013, a month after the lane closures, that they hoped would make the questions "go away."

The report was "authorized" by Christie's top staff and would explain what happened over four mornings in September 2013 when two of the three local access lanes to the world's busiest bridge were closed with no advance notice, resulting in crippling traffic jams in Fort Lee, Wildstein said.

The New Jersey side of the Port Authority would "take responsibility for a failure in communications" and lay out steps to prevent something similar from happening again, and then the questions about the lane closings would go away, he said.

Cuomo's office disputed Wildstein's allegation, and Christie has denied having any knowledge of the lane closures as they were happening.

Wildstein said his account of the discussions between the two governors came from David Samson, a close Christie confidant who at the time was the Port Authority's chairman, and Bill Baroni, who was Christie's top staff appointment at the bi-state agency.

From his conversations with Samson, Wildstein said he understood that Christie was mad at Patrick Foye, the executive director of the Port Authority appointed by Cuomo, for meddling in New Jersey affairs. Foye reopened the access lanes in Fort Lee on the fifth morning over Baroni's protestations, Wildstein has said.

Foye himself was looking for answers through an internal review. But Wildstein acknowledged defense attorney Michael Critchley's characterization that Foye was instructed by Cuomo to "lay off Christie," who was seeking reelection a month later.

Wildstein said Christie's chief of staff at the time, Kevin O'Dowd, was "on top of it" and "working with legislators to make the issue go away." He was told in an Oct. 2, 2013, message from Christie's top spokesman at the time, Michael Drewniak, that he "briefed O'Dowd on the Foye madness. He gets it and is taking a serious look."

Prosecutors say, and Wildstein has testified, that the lane closures in Fort Lee were designed to send a punishing message to the Democratic mayor for not endorsing Christie for a second term. Wildstein's former boss, Baroni; and Bridget Anne Kelly, a former Christie deputy chief of staff, have pleaded not guilty to charges they conspired with Wildstein to close the lanes.

Questions about the lane closures persisted until Election Day. Seeking to quiet the inquiries and knock down rumors of political motivations, the two governors talked in October about the agency issuing a report acknowledging missteps and accepting responsibility, Wildstein said. The report was "authorized," Wildstein said, by Samson, Charles McKenna, then Christie's chief counsel, and Regina Egea, who led the authorities unit.

"My understanding was that Governor Christie and Governor Cuomo had discussed this," Wildstein said. "My understanding at the time was that it would put an end to this issue."

The report was not released, but it was used as a basis for Baroni's testimony in November 2013 to a legislative committee looking into the lane closures, Wildstein said. Baroni told the committee that the closures were for a traffic study.

John Kelly, a spokesman for Cuomo, denied Wildstein's assertion and defended Foye's role in ordering the Fort Lee lanes reopened on the fifth morning. …

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