A federal prosecutor in Newark, N.J. told jurors Monday that a witness will testify that Republican Gov. Chris Christie was told about a plan to close traffic lanes near the George Washington Bridge as it was happening, a claim he has contested for years.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Vikas Khanna made the revelation in opening statements at the trial of Bill Baroni and Bridget Kelly, two former allies of Christie. Baroni was a top Christie appointee to Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge, and Kelly was Christie's deputy chief of staff.
The trial comes three years after gridlock paralyzed a New Jersey town next to the busy bridge for four days. Prosecutors say it was a criminal conspiracy cooked up by Baroni and Kelly to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich out of political revenge.
Khanna told jurors that David Wildstein, another Port Authority official, will testify he and Baroni made Christie aware of the plan during a 9/11 memorial in New York City in 2013, three days after the gridlock started.
"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.
Christie has denied knowing about the scheme. A message left at his office Monday seeking comment wasn't immediately returned.
Christie wasn't charged in the federal investigation, and a New Jersey state legislative probe also concluded he didn't know about the alleged scheme. But the trial is expected to produce new revelations on who in Christie's inner circle may have known about the plans or subsequent cover-up.
Christie, an unsuccessful candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, conceded last week that the bridge scandal was a factor in GOP nominee Donald Trump's not picking him as a running mate.
According to a federal indictment, Kelly and Baroni conspired to reduce access lanes to the bridge in Fort Lee, across the Hudson River from New York City, in September 2013 after the town's Democratic mayor declined to endorse Christie's re-election. About 150,000 vehicles cross the bridge each day, making it one of the world's busiest.
They face counts of wire fraud, conspiracy, deprivation of civil rights and misusing an organization receiving federal funds. The organization is the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs area bridges, tunnels and transit hubs and is where Baroni served as deputy executive director.
The most serious charge in the indictment, wire fraud conspiracy, carries a maximum 20-year prison term.
Prosecutors are expected to introduce texts and emails showing the defendants joking about the traffic jams even as Sokolich — who hadn't been notified ahead of time about the closures — called and sent emails seeking help.
They'll also show jurors an email from Kelly to another Port Authority official a month before the traffic jams saying, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."
That official, Wildstein, pleaded guilty in 2015 and will be the government's key witness. Wildstein is a onetime political blogger and high school classmate of Christie's who served as the Port Authority's director of interstate capital projects, a position created for him.
Kelly and Baroni have said in court filings that the government has twisted federal law to turn their actions into crimes. They also have said other people with more power and influence were involved but aren't being prosecuted.