Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly outside federal court on Friday, Sept. 23, 2016. CHRIS PEDOTA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
At nearly every turn last week, lawyers in the George Washington Bridge criminal trial turned jurors’ attention to someone who wasn’t in the courtroom, someone who isn’t charged with a crime in the case or even named in the indictment as a co-conspirator.
They worked to shine a spotlight on Chris Christie, the governor at the center of the scandal who has repeatedly said he only learned of the actual defendants’ alleged conspiracy months later when reading about it on a newspaper’s website one morning.
Attorneys on both sides have all but promised to offer evidence contradicting Christie’s claim that he had no knowledge of the lane closures before that morning of Jan. 8, 2014, and instead show that the governor knew of the criminal scheme as it was happening.
But beyond that, both the prosecution and defense will cast Christie as the central figure in a Shakespearean tragedy, one in which an ambitious and powerful figure’s allies aimed to please him at all costs and whose aspirations for higher office were dashed at least in part by the scandal now at the heart of the trial.
As the trial continues, prosecutors trying to convict Bridget Anne Kelly, a former deputy chief of staff in the governor’s office, and former Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni, will likely portray Christie as the malevolent micromanager who demands loyalty, attorneys say. The defense team, meanwhile, is likely to discredit top prosecution witness David Wildstein as a sordid operative who went rogue in calling for the lane closures and shift blame from Baroni and Kelly onto Christie, according to attorneys watching the trial unfold. Christie will be blamed by the defense, legal experts said, for setting a tone of intimidation in his administration, where vengeance is meted out with the wide range of resources at his disposal for acts of scorn or betrayal.
“For both sides, Governor Christie is a central figure to their strategy,” said Alain Leibman, a former assistant U.S. attorney who is now a partner at the Fox Rothschild firm in Princeton. “It’s like two parallel universes, wherein both Governor Christie is a central figure.”
The government brought Wildstein, a former Port Authority executive who has pleaded guilty to a pair of conspiracy charges, to the witness stand on Friday.
His testimony is expected to last several days, but in just two hours Friday he described an understanding in which the high-ranking New Jersey members of the agency were to pledge fealty to Christie and to serve his ambitions. It was devised by Wildstein and known as the “One Constituent Rule.”
“The One Constituent Rule meant that the only person who mattered was Governor Christie. He was the one constituent. If it was good for Governor Christie, it was good for us. If it was not good for Governor Christie, it was not good for us,” said Wildstein.
It is possible, but unlikely, that Christie will be called to testify in the case. He has denied any involvement or knowledge in the lane closures. His office declined to comment on the case, instead referring to his past public statements.
In the days ahead, the jury will have to weigh the credibility of Wildstein, who prosecutors said has admitted to engaging in past “dirty tricks” and said himself Friday that he was hired at the agency to play “bad cop.”
“This witness is their case,” said Baroni’s attorney, Michael Baldassare.
Since Wildstein has pleaded guilty to his involvement in closing the lanes, his testimony will be “equally critical” to both sides, said Robert Mintz, a former assistant U.S. attorney who is now partner at McCarter & English law firm in Newark. The jury is likely to hear from prosecutors that Wildstein is an unsympathetic witness, but one who worked with Baroni and Kelly to exact political retribution. Prosecutors say that the lanes were closed as payback to Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for declining to endorse Christie for reelection in 2013.
The job of the defense, Mintz said, will be to convince jurors that “the government cut a deal with someone who has already proven that he will say or do anything to further his own interests.”
The case is unique in that Christie factors so heavily yet has not been charged and, unless he testifies, has no voice in the courtroom, said Aidan O’Connor, who worked under Christie when he was U.S. attorney and his successor, current prosecutor Paul Fishman. O’Connor said it seems to serve each side better for Christie to not testify.
“Everyone sort of paints him in this dirty place,” said O’Connor, now a criminal defense attorney at Pashman Stein Walder Hayden, a Hackensack law firm that is representing North Jersey Media Group, publisher of The Record, in a lawsuit against Christie seeking public records. “In some ways he’s better for both sides [as] the figure they can paint the way they want, as opposed to the real person” being there.
The jury has been instructed to consider only what is discussed or presented within the walls of the courtroom: the testimony of witnesses and evidence presented by attorneys. Any evidence of Christie’s knowledge of the lane closures — which Wildstein’s attorney has said “exists” — could raise questions with jurors and ultimately weigh on their decision.
“This type of evidence may have a subtle — or maybe not so subtle — influence on the jury that the people standing trial are not the right people to be brought into court. And they may ask themselves, why aren’t other people charged in this?” said Darren Gelber, a past president of the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in New Jersey who works at the Woodbridge firm Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer.
The prosecution appears to have considered such a possibility. In his opening statement, prosecutor Vikas Khanna told the jury that evidence “may” show that others “could have, should have, perhaps knew certain aspects” of what was going on at the bridge in Fort Lee. “Perhaps you will even wonder: What happened to those people? But at the end of this case, the only issue for you to decide is whether Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni are guilty of the crimes which they are charged beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Michael Critchley, who is leading Kelly’s defense, signaled at the beginning of last week that his strategy is to show just how deep the alleged scheming went, telling the jury that the government “went hunting for whales and they settled for a minnow.”
Later, outside the courtroom, he promised that more is to come in the weeks ahead.
“Christie knew about it. We’ll talk about it,” he said, adding that Christie’s “role will come out during the course of the trial.”
“What I say here has a basis in fact. I’m just not making it up,” he said. “There’s nothing I said up there that I can’t back up.”