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National

Testimony Begins In New Jersey Bridgegate Trial

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It'll probably go down as one of the most scrutinized traffic jams in history - the huge backup on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge that began on September 9, 2013. It would go on for days. Federal prosecutors allege that close associates of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie orchestrated lane closures to punish Christie's political opponents ahead of his re-election that November.

Jurors heard their first day of testimony in the Bridgegate trial today, and joining us is reporter Matt Katz of member station WNYC who was in the courtroom. And Matt, what kind of testimony did the jurors hear today?

MATT KATZ, BYLINE: Jurors heard from the police chief of Fort Lee, and he said the traffic that - on these four days in September 2013 was worse than it had been since 9/11 when both levels of the bridge were closed. He said he was furious about it. He didn't know why ambulance crews couldn't drive freely through town.

He described a series of public safety incidents going on during the traffic. There was a missing 4-year-old, a cardiac arrest, a car that crashed into a building.

And then the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee testified, and he was saying how he was initially wooed by Christie, Governor Christie, with free tickets to Giants games, a private breakfast with him, invitations to the governor's mansion for cocktail parties. But all of that ended after he told Christie's aide he was not endorsing Christie's re-election. And the traffic problems in Fort Lee began a few weeks later.

SIEGEL: We should add the New York Giants play in New Jersey.

KATZ: Correct (laughter).

SIEGEL: Yesterday both the prosecution and the defense in opening statements put Governor Christie squarely in the middle of this whole scheme. They said he knew about the lane closures and the traffic jam as it was happening. Why would both sides want to implicate the governor?

KATZ: Christie really has no friends in this courtroom. Lawyers for all sides have reason to call into question actions of the administration but for different reasons. So the prosecutors are arguing that there was a pattern of retaliation in the governor's office where mayors who didn't endorse his re-election would be punished.

So for example the mayor of Jersey City saw all meetings with all of Christie's cabinet members canceled in a single day after he decided not to endorse, and then the mayor of Fort Lee, of course, after he said he wasn't endorsing, he got this crippling traffic jam that threaten public safety.

Meanwhile the defense is describing Christie as this master of dark arts. They're trying to tie him directly to David Wildstein. This is the former Christie aide who pleaded guilty in the scheme, and he's cooperating with prosecutors.

SIEGEL: But if the prosecution believes that, why wasn't Christie indicted?

KATZ: The U.S. attorney had told us that he only wanted to take cases where he was sure he'd get a conviction. And there's also this sense generally out there among prosecutors that it's harder right now to land a federal political corruption conviction right now in this country.

There also may be more evidence against those who were indicted. Bill Baroni, one of those defendants - there's voicemails and text message where he's ignoring when the mayor of Fort Lee is screaming about public safety concerns - with Bridget Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff. She's a defendant. She wrote that time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee email. You know, that's evidence right there. And then Wildstein, who obviously pleaded guilty - he responded to that email and said, got it.

SIEGEL: What laws were allegedly broken by these people?

KATZ: There are nine counts that the two defendants are charged with - misuse of government resources, which would be the bridge; wire fraud and depriving citizens of their rights to freely travel. But what's most interesting about the allegations is evidence that the Port Authority which runs the bridge and carried out this plan was a political tool of the governor.

Defense attorneys allege that Christie put David Wildstein at the Port Authority, created a position for him to be his fixer and his bully and to use the agency to just manage his political operations. He was considered Christie's voice at the Port Authority. And the defense of course obviously, we should note, is trying to negatively portray...

SIEGEL: Yeah.

KATZ: ...Wildstein since he'll be testifying against the defendants.

SIEGEL: Just briefly, we should note Chris Christie is now in charge of Donald Trump's transition team. He's a top surrogate of the Republican candidate. Do these revelations cause any problem for Christie's ambitions or the Trump campaign?

KATZ: It's a bit awkward since Trump had said that Christie totally knew about it. That was back in December. But now Trump is totally standing by the governor after the governor endorsed Trump for president.

SIEGEL: WNYC's Matt Katz in Newark, N.J. Matt, thanks.

KATZ: Thanks a lot Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.