NEWARK—It was as if Darth Vader had entered the courtroom.
Long before David Wildstein, the government's key witness in the Bridgegate scandal, made his first appearance at trial on Friday, he was being portrayed by defense attorneys as a master manipulator; a vengeful figure who could easily destroy someone's life.
And when Wildstein strode in, purposeful and garbed in a black suit, all eyes were on the man who has agreed to cooperate with authorities after pleading guilty to federal charges in connection with the plot to shut down lanes at the George Washington Bridge.
Even witnesses in the case have been disdainful of the one-time anonymous political blogger and former high-level $150,020-a-year patronage appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
"He was abusive and untrustworthy," testified Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye on Thursday. "I had concerns about damage he had done the entire time he was at the Port Authority."
When the scandal broke and Wildstein was forced to quit, Foye said he had his photograph posted at all Port Authority facilities to make sure he was not allowed back in.
Wildstein, a long-time Republican operative, has admitted orchestrating the September 2013 scheme to shut down toll lanes at the George Washington Bridge in an outlandish plan to create traffic havoc in Fort Lee for the purpose of political retribution. The man who hired him, Bill Baroni, former deputy executive director of the Port Authority, and Bridget Anne Kelly, a one-time top aide to Gov. Chris Christie, are now on trial, accused of planning the unauthorized lane closures to punish Democratic Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich after he declined to endorse the governor for re-election.
While Wildstein, who continues his testimony on Monday, has yet to directly face defense attorneys in case playing out in the fifth floor courtroom of U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton, he was being painted with a broad brush even before he walked in the door, sometimes in explicitly vulgar terms.
"Everyone was terrified of him," claimed attorney Michael Critchley, who represents Kelly. "Don't confuse him with that good and decent man who sees wrong and tries to right it and he cooperates. This man is a criminal."
Baroni's lawyer, Michael Baldassare, said Wildstein lied about everything. "The government made a deal with the devil and they're stuck with him," he said.
For his part, Wildstein was not evasive Friday about what he called his "unpleasant personality" and ability to be "the bad cop," in his matter-of-fact describing of the behind-the-scenes strategy of politically exploiting the public resources of the Port Authority to help the governor of New Jersey get re-elected.
Wildstein said he had a "one constituent" rule—a phrase he coined when he first joined the Port Authority.
"If it was good for Gov. Christie, it was good for us. If it was not good for Gov. Christie, then it was not good for us," he explained.
His contact with the governor's office on political and patronage matters, he said, was Bill Stepien, who had headed the governor's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, as well as Kelly, Michael Drewniak, the governor's spokesman, and Michelle Brown, who was then the governor's appointments counsel.
A Bridgegate timeline
To Wildstein, the Port Authority was an endless source of "goody bag" giveaways that could be used to generate good will for the governor, including special tours of Ground Zero, political jobs, surplus trucks, millions in grants and even American flags flown over the 9/11 Memorial.
All use of Port Authority resources had to be approved by the governor's office, he testified.
"That was the system that had been established," he said. "And that if it was (approved), the governor's office was always to be the deliverer of good news."
The goal, he said, was to secure endorsements for Gov. Christie of individuals or organizations that would not typically support a Republican governor in a statewide campaign. In other words, Democrats.
Sokolich, the Fort Lee mayor, had been one of those beneficiaries of Port Authority "goody bag" items. The agency had delivered grants for shuttle buses and taken his family on private tours of Ground Zero. When Sokolich finally said "no" to an endorsement, he testified last week that he woke up one morning in a community locked on gridlock.
For Wildstein, there were just two qualities critical to politics—the "dead-to-me gene" and the "insanity gene."
It was a simple rule, he told the jury.
"The dead to me gene meant if somebody were not to be your friend, somebody were to cross you, somebody were to do you wrong, they would be dead to you. They would not have a chance of recovering that relationship," he explained. As for the "insanity gene," he said he believed that in politics—specifically in New Jersey politics—everyone is a little crazy.
"Including yourself?" asked assistant U.S. attorney Lee Cortes.
"Absolutely," he agreed. "I would include myself, yeah."
Ted Sherman may be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TedShermanSL. Facebook: @TedSherman.reporter. Find NJ.com on Facebook.
Matt Arco may be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @MatthewArco or on Facebook. Follow NJ.com Politics on Facebook.
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