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Bridgegate witnesses 'don't recall' details following lane closures

NEWARK, N.J. - Defense attorneys have zeroed in on December 2013 as a key month in the George Washington Bridge lane-closing saga, as allies of Gov. Christie and officials of the Port Authority have revealed hazy memories with regard to potentially important events in the case.

Former deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly arrives for the trial in the Newark courthouse.
Former deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly arrives for the trial in the Newark courthouse.Read moreMEL EVANS / AP

NEWARK, N.J. - Defense attorneys have zeroed in on December 2013 as a key month in the George Washington Bridge lane-closing saga, as allies of Gov. Christie and officials of the Port Authority have revealed hazy memories with regard to potentially important events in the case.

The attorneys also elicited fresh testimony Thursday to remind jurors why they say they should not trust David Wildstein, a former Port Authority official and cooperating witness. His testimony is critical to the government's case against Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, Christie's former top executive appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Wildstein has testified that he ordered Port Authority personnel to close the bridge approach lanes in September 2013, under Kelly's direction and with Baroni's approval, as part of a conspiracy to punish a mayor for his refusal to endorse Christie's reelection campaign that year.

Three months later, in December, Wildstein and Baroni were forced to resign; Christie convened a tense meeting in which he ordered his senior staff to come forward if they knew anything about the lane closures, then told reporters he was confident his team was clean; and Wildstein received a legislative subpoena for documents related to the bridge issue.

On the stand Thursday as the trial neared the end of its fifth week, Mike DuHaime, Christie's chief political strategist, testified that Wildstein first told him on Nov. 11 that the lane closures were his idea and part of a traffic study. "He said there was good public policy behind it," DuHaime said, adding that Wildstein, who had been identified as the architect of the lane closures in news reports, "was upset the governor's office was not defending him."

Either that day or sometime in the next month, DuHaime said, Wildstein told him that Kelly and Bill Stepien, Christie's campaign manager, knew about the lane closures beforehand. Contrary to Wildstein's testimony, DuHaime said Wildstein did not tell him the traffic jams had been orchestrated to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich.

DuHaime testified that he relayed this information to Christie on Dec. 11, two days after Patrick Foye, the Port Authority's executive director and an appointee of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, told New Jersey lawmakers that he had not been aware of a traffic study and that Wildstein was behind the lane closures.

Michael Critchley Sr., Kelly's attorney, asked whether the governor said anything when DuHaime told him that Kelly had prior knowledge of the lane closures.

"I don't recall any response," DuHaime said, but Christie did say he "needed to meet" with Stepien.

Asked by Critchley whether Christie told DuHaime that he had already been informed by press secretary Michael Drewniak that Kelly and Stepien had been aware of the lane closures, DuHaime said the governor did not.

Critchley has said Christie and Kelly discussed the lane closures beforehand and at the time. Christie has long denied such allegations.

DuHaime spoke with Wildstein, a longtime friend, by phone a number of times Dec. 12, the day Wildstein received the subpoena. In response to the subpoena, Wildstein provided lawmakers an email exchange, made public in January 2014, in which Kelly wrote him a month before the lane closures, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," to which he replied, "Got it."

On one call, starting at 11:28 p.m., DuHaime and Wildstein spoke for 73 minutes.

"Did you talk about his subpoena?" Critchley asked.

"I don't recall," DuHaime said, adding that Wildstein had discussed losing his job at the Port Authority.

"He's been my friend at this point for 15 years," DuHaime said, recalling his Dec. 12 conversation with Wildstein. "He lost his job. He became part of this story publicly."

Earlier Thursday, Critchley called Scott Rechler, then vice chairman of the Port Authority and a Cuomo appointee, to testify. Before the jury convened, Critchley, in response to objections by prosecutors, told U.S. District Judge Susan D. Wigenton that he planned to use Rechler's testimony to establish that Kelly "wasn't involved in using Port Authority resources to cover up" the bridge scheme.

Rather, Critchley argued, the testimony and evidence would show that high-ranking officials at the Port Authority and in Trenton and Albany tried to cover up the lane closures.

Christie, a Republican, called Cuomo, a Democrat, a month after the lane closures to tell him that David Samson, a Christie confidant and the agency's chairman, was complaining that Foye was "interfering" and "getting involved in politics," Rechler told jurors, based on his conversation with Cuomo.

"After [Cuomo] told you about this conversation, he asked you to go find out what was going on" regarding the lane closures? Critchley asked Rechler.

"No," said Rechler, a Cuomo appointee. "He asked me what was going on. And I relayed to him what was going on." Rechler did not elaborate.

Rechler's testimony came two weeks after Wildstein told jurors that Christie and Cuomo had authorized the Port Authority to issue a report explaining the purpose of the purported traffic study in an effort to "put an end" to the bridge story.

Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said in a statement that there was "no conversation between the governors concerning a 'plan' to have Pat Foye stand down or to have the issue 'whitewashed' through a report."

"Today's testimony confirms what we have said all along and further disproves Mr. Wildstein's false hearsay testimony from earlier this month," the statement said.

Defense attorneys also introduced evidence showing that Rechler and others at the Port Authority saw Wildstein as a menace who needed to be ousted.

"DW is getting worse. His powerbase seems to be expanding," Rechler wrote in a Sept. 19, 2013, email to his chief of staff. He wrote they needed to "quickly expose" Wildstein because the "last thing we want is for him to survive as a wounded, angry DW" - a result that "would be a disaster" for the agency.

aseidman@phillynews.com

856-779-3846 @AndrewSeidman