By Karen Freifeld and Joseph Ax
(Reuters) – New Jersey Governor Chris Christie knew that two close associates were involved in shutting down lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge as a way to punish a mayor who would not support his re-election, federal prosecutors said on Monday.
The assertion by Assistant U.S. Attorney Vikas Khanna was the first time the government has accused Christie of knowing about the alleged September 2013 scheme while it was taking place.
It came during opening argument at the trial in Newark, New Jersey, federal court of Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Prosecutors have accused Kelly and Baroni of engineering the closures of the lanes, which lead to New York City, under the pretext they were needed for a traffic study.
They said the real motive was to retaliate against Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, who would not back the re-election of Christie, a Republican. The closures caused several days of gridlock and hurt local businesses.
Christie, a campaign adviser to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, has not been charged over the lane closures and has denied knowledge of them.
Khanna, however, told jurors that Baroni and former Port Authority official David Wildstein had boasted to Christie about the closures while they were underway as the men were attending a Sept. 11 memorial service.
“The evidence will show that … they bragged about the fact that there were traffic problems in Fort Lee and that Mayor Sokolich was not getting his calls returned,” Khanna said.
Wildstein has pleaded guilty and is expected to testify for the government. He has claimed there is evidence showing Christie was aware of the scheme.
A spokesman for Christie declined to comment on Khanna’s statement.
The governor said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that he would have “no problem” if asked by either side to testify but added that “the fact is that I won’t because I really don’t have any knowledge of this incident at all.”
Michael Baldassare, a lawyer for Baroni, said in his opening statement that Wildstein was “vindictive” and a “habitual liar,” who Christie had referred to as his “fixer,” and who should not be trusted.
“The evidence will show their case is David Wildstein,” Baldassare told jurors. “The government made a deal with the devil and they’re stuck with him.”
“Bridgegate” came to light in January 2014, shortly after Christie had easily won re-election. The scandal helped to erode his once-high approval ratings and was an issue in his unsuccessful run this year for the White House.
Michael Critchley, Kelly’s lawyer, told jurors in his opening statement that his client was being made a scapegoat for “Bridgegate” and its effect on Christie’s presidential hopes.”They’re going to let no one, such as Bridget Kelly, or nothing, such as the truth, get in the way,” he said.
Prosecutors likely will introduce emails and text messages between Baroni, Kelly and Wildstein to show they arranged the closures.
Baroni and Kelly have pleaded not guilty to wire fraud, civil rights deprivation and conspiracy charges.
Testimony is expected to begin on Tuesday, with Sokolich, Fort Lee Police Chief Keith Bendul and Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye as potential witnesses.
The trial before U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton is scheduled to last approximately six weeks.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Bill Trott, Toni Reinhold)