Jury Selection Begins In New Jersey 'Bridgegate' Trial

Sep 7, 2016
Originally published on September 7, 2016 6:17 pm
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Jury selection begins tomorrow in a trial with big political implications in New Jersey and beyond. The defendants are two former allies of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. They're accused of closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge, the scandal known as Bridgegate. Christie is not on trial, but he's still a major presence, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: It was almost exactly three years ago when the town of Fort Lee woke up to a massive traffic jam.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The GW Bridge is totally gridlocked if you can come up maybe Pawley Road or something to that effect.

UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER: Ten-four, we're getting calls from irate motorists.

ROSE: Emergency responders were stuck. So were buses and parents driving their kids to the first day of school. Three toll lanes on the world's busiest bridge were funneled down to one. Officials at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey which operates the bridge claimed it was part of a traffic study. But that claim broke down under scrutiny.

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PAUL FISHMAN: The traffic study story was a sham, a total fabrication.

ROSE: That was U.S. attorney Paul Fishman in May of 2015 announcing charges against two people - Bridget Anne Kelly, a former deputy chief of staff to Governor Chris Christie and Bill Baroni, one of the governor's former political appointees at the Port Authority.

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FISHMAN: They agreed to and did use the resources of the Port Authority - public resources - to carry out a vendetta and exact political retribution against a public official who would not endorse the candidate of their choice.

ROSE: Prosecutors say the traffic jam was a punishment for the mayor of Fort Lee, a Democrat who declined to endorse Republican Chris Christie for re-election. Christie did win with 60 percent of the vote. But state Democrats continued to investigate the lane closures, and they found a smoking gun - an email from Bridget Kelly to an official at the Port Authority saying, quote, "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." Both Kelly and Baroni deny the charges. Here's Kelly in her only public comments since the incident.

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BRIDGET ANNE KELLY: To suggest that I was the only person in the governor's office who was aware of the George Washington Bridge issue is ludicrous.

ROSE: Christie has denied ordering the lane closures or knowing that any of his senior staff were involved at the time. Christie is not charged with any wrongdoing, but in a way, he's still the focus of the trial. Brigid Harrison teaches political science at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

BRIGID HARRISON: What people will be looking for is what the governor knew and when he knew it - you know, that old cliche, but I think here, it's very, very important.

ROSE: At a press conference in December of 2013, Christie dismissed allegations that the lane closures were an act of political retribution.

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CHRIS CHRISTIE: Now, I've made it very clear to everybody on my senior staff that if anyone had any knowledge about this, that they needed to come forward to me and tell me about it. And they've all assured me that they don't.

ROSE: But a former Christie aide was texting a colleague during that press conference, and she wrote that Christie, quote, "flat-out lied," unquote, when he said that his senior staff weren't involved. Christie denies that. Still, the text could help defense lawyers build their case. Stuart Green is a professor at Rutgers School of Law in Newark.

STUART GREEN: One of the arguments that the defendants will try to make to the jury is that they were really small fry in a high-level government conspiracy, that they're the scapegoats.

ROSE: Defense lawyers have fought to include evidence that hasn't been made public before, evidence that might shed light on what Christie knew about the lane closures and when. Then there's a list of unindicted co-conspirators that could come out at trial and another list of people who knew about the conspiracy but were not directly involved. Brigid Harrison says that could be explosive.

HARRISON: It is possible that Governor Christie is included on that list. That really, to me, is a pretty significant political blow.

ROSE: The scandal has already undermined Christie's popularity in New Jersey. Now he's an adviser to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. And while Christie isn't on trial, the outcome could hurt his chances of landing a high-profile job in a Trump administration. Joel Rose, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.