Mitsu Yasukawa/Staff Photographer. Christina Renna leaves federal court on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016.
When Governor Christie learned that a summer intern mocked him with a box of Krispy Kreme donuts during a lighthearted staff baking contest, he and his chief of staff and chief counsel “freaked on” Bridget Anne Kelly, the deputy chief of staff who coordinated the event, a former employee testified in court Friday.
The story, known among staff as the “Christie Cream incident,” was told in court two days after another former Christie employee described the governor’s obscenity-filled response to a county freeholder who called him a “fat [expletive],” telling the freeholder he would “[expletive] destroy” him.
In both instances, the tales of Christie as a deeply involved and reactionary manager were revealed during cross-examination of witnesses in the trial of his onetime associates — Kelly and Bill Baroni, former deputy executive director at the Port Authority.
Baroni and Kelly have pleaded not guilty to charges they conspired to create traffic at the George Washington Bridge to punish Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor for not endorsing Christie’s reelection in 2013. And Christie’s awareness of, and his response to, what those well below him in the government ranks were doing contrasts with his insistence that he was not aware of the five mornings of lane closings at the world’s busiest bridge or that they were carried out as political reprisal.
Kelly’s defense attorney, Michael Critchley, worked Friday to build a case that his client was not one in a small group of rogue operators, but a loyal worker who was manipulated by higher powers and who had a bull’s eye on her back even before she stepped into her role as one of Christie’s deputies.
Cross-examining Christina Renna for a second day Friday, Critchley drew out the intra-office politics that underscored his main argument.
Renna, who worked under Kelly in the Intergovernmental Affairs unit, acknowledged that she approved of a sabotage plan devised by one of her colleagues, Peter Sheridan, as Kelly was transitioning to deputy chief overseeing the department. Sheridan said he was “not happy,” while Renna suspected that Kelly would pass her over for a promotion to her former job of director of Intergovernmental Affairs. Renna said Kelly had been considering another employee, Kieran Tintle, for her second in command.
How idea unfolded
“I’m upset. I’m super pissed off and I’m a grudge-holder, which is a problem for BK,” Renna, referring to Kelly by her initials, said in an April 25, 2013, text message to Sheridan.
Sheridan talked with Renna of his plan “to turn” staffers against Kelly upon taking the role of deputy chief.
“Since I can’t work on the campaign I want, this is the one I will focus on. And I will win,” Sheridan told Renna in a text message.
Renna responded, “Yes. I like this approach.”
Renna ultimately did get the job as director of the department.
Through his attorney, Sheridan declined to comment Friday. While Kelly and Baroni are fighting charges against them, former Port Authority executive David Wildstein has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the federal government.
In the case against Kelly and Baroni, there is at least one thing on which both the prosecution and defense can agree: that Christie knew of the lane closures as they happened in September 2013. Christie has denied having any knowledge.
Testimony over the past three weeks has revealed a growing number of Christie’s closest aides and advisers being told of the closures and the plan’s malicious intent well before documents published in January 2014 showed the level of involvement by his associates.
In his line of questioning and evidence presented in the trial, Critchley, Kelly’s attorney, has sought to discredit the notion presented by Christie that there is no way he can know what employees are doing in his name.
Critchley zeroed in on Renna’s shifting language during a Dec. 13, 2013, Christie news conference.
The night before that news conference, Renna said in court Thursday, she spoke with Kelly on the phone about the lane closures. And Kelly asked Renna to delete an email she sent in September in which Renna notified her of a rumor that the lane closures were payback and Kelly replied, “good.” When Christie told a reporter that he had been assured that no one on his staff was involved in the closures for political retribution, Renna texted Sheridan that Christie “flat out lied.” She called it a “poor choice of words” in court Thursday and said that she had “no knowledge” that Christie lied.
But around the same time Christie held the news conference, and minutes before she was accusing the governor of lying, Renna followed through on Kelly’s request and deleted the September email while preserving it on another account, according to evidence.
“So you have the governor saying no political retribution. You have an email that refers to retribution. And then shortly after that, the email is deleted,” Critchley said.
While Critchley presented Renna as a dubious government witness, he also portrayed Kelly as a target.
Kelly’s time leading Intergovernmental Affairs got off to a rocky start outside of the sabotage plot.
In 2013, Kelly held a baking contest that Renna said was intended to engage new interns in the “camaraderie” of the office. One intern brought in a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, but doctored the box so that it said “Christie Crème” and referred to the 2016 presidential race which Christie was expected to enter. A photo of the box was circulated on social media and picked up in news accounts.
Renna texted Sheridan that Christie, his chief of staff and chief counsel “freaked out” on Kelly.
“Gov, KOD, meaning Kevin O’Dowd, and McKenna, meaning Charlie McKenna, all freaked on BK, apparently,” Renna wrote.
She later expressed dismay to Sheridan that Kelly bore the brunt of the governor’s displeasure.
“The girl [the intern] wasn’t reprimanded yesterday,” Renna wrote to Sheridan. “She won the [expletive] contest.”