Bridgegate Case Is In Jurors' Hands
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The case that's come to be known as Bridgegate goes to the jury today. The jurors will consider charges against two former aides of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. They are charged with closing access lanes to the George Washington Bridge to punish a local Democratic mayor who did not endorse the Republican Christie in his bid for re-election. But the case has laid bare an unflattering portrait of Christie. And from member station WNYC, Andrea Bernstein joins us now.
ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Well, the issue before the jurors - give us more details on that.
BERNSTEIN: So the jury is charged with examining whether the defendants conspired to use government resources to cause gridlock in Fort Lee to punish the mayor who hadn't endorsed Christie for re-election. There were 35 witnesses, thousands of documents and emails - one of which you probably heard of - time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.
But it's not just that one. There were quite a few emails and texts in which the defendants seemed to be mocking the mayor. But at one point in summations, the defense lawyer thundered, Chris Christie, where are you? That side is asking the jury how the defendants can be at fault when they say Christie, who is now Donald Trump's transition chair and who ran for president, and so many other powerful men knew about the scheme and then covered it up.
MONTAGNE: Well, Christie himself has long said - and continues to say that he had nothing to do with this, didn't know anything about it. How does the defense address that?
BERNSTEIN: So defendant Bridget Kelly, who used to work as Christie's deputy chief of staff, says the bridge plan was devised by the prosecution's star witness who's already pleaded guilty and is cooperating, even the prosecution calls him the architect of the scheme. She says before she sent that traffic problems email, Governor Christie himself approved what she thought was a traffic study. And she says she spoke to the governor about it twice while the lanes were closed, and he said let Wildstein handle it - that's the star witness who's cooperating. Wildstein and the second defendant, Bill Baroni, also say they discussed the closures with Christie while they were happening.
MONTAGNE: Well, beyond the testimony of defendants - these three - was there any other evidence that Christie might have known?
BERNSTEIN: Yeah. And here's where it gets interesting. Three Christie loyalists, two of whom still work for him, testified they spoke to Christie about his office's involvement in the traffic jams after the closures but long before he publicly said he knew nothing. And a fourth witness, who's a close ally of Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, suggested Cuomo also worked with Christie early on to keep the closures quiet for his own political reasons. Wildstein, the star witness, backed up that account and there are corroborating emails.
MONTAGNE: And, you know, you kind of have to wonder in this that there - you know, there's a big cast of characters. Is the prosecution worried that the jury will just get confused?
BERNSTEIN: Yes. And they said that in their closing arguments. They said do not be distracted by who is not on trial. Just look at these defendants and what they did and said in plain English. The problem for the prosecution is the defendants didn't personally benefit. Both the prosecution and the defense agree that the two were Christie loyalists trying to help their boss, although they didn't agree on how they tried to help him. The defense says Christie didn't return that loyalty but instead lied and threw them under the bus to protect his own White House ambitions.
MONTAGNE: Well, Andrea, we just have a few seconds here. But, you know, there is irony, it would appear, that this case closes right when the presidential race comes to a close. And it was a race Christie had hoped to be in.
BERNSTEIN: Very much so. Whoever's found guilty, one thing is clear - Christie and his administration were hell-bent on getting him re-elected for governor by huge margins as a launching pad for the presidential race...
BERNSTEIN: ...They were almost successful.
BERNSTEIN: And the verdict had come just as Election Day arrives.
MONTAGNE: All right, thank you very much, Andrea. That was Andrea Bernstein, senior editor for politics and policy at member station WNYC.
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