By Joseph Ax
NEWARK, N.J. (Reuters) - New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was told about the lane closures that led to the "Bridgegate" scandal a month before they occurred, a former aide testified on Friday, contradicting Christie's statements that he only learned about them afterward.
Bridget Kelly, the governor's former deputy chief of staff, told jurors in federal court in Newark she discussed the plan to shut down access lanes to the George Washington Bridge with Christie in August 2013 and again in September as it was ongoing. She testified she had been frightened of Christie, saying he once threw a water bottle at her.
Kelly, who is on trial for her alleged role in the plot, said she believed at the time that the lane closures were for a legitimate traffic study, not a politically motivated scheme, and described it as such to Christie.
Prosecutors have charged Kelly and Bill Baroni, a former executive of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and a Christie appointee, with creating massive traffic gridlock in Fort Lee, New Jersey, as payback after Fort Lee's Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, refused to back Christie's 2013 re-election campaign.
Christie has repeatedly denied any knowledge of the plot, but the scandal dogged his bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
“As the governor has said since January 9, 2014, the governor had no knowledge prior to or during these lane realignments, and he had no role in authorizing them. Anything said to the contrary is simply untrue,” Christie's press secretary, Brian Murray, said in a statement on Friday.
Kelly testified that former Port Authority executive David Wildstein, the confessed mastermind, said the traffic study might allow Christie to take credit for lessening commuting time and asked her to run the idea by the governor.
Kelly said Christie told her on Aug. 12 the study sounded fine. The next morning, Kelly sent a now-infamous email to Wildstein in which she said, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."
Prosecutors claim that email set the scheme in motion. But Kelly said she was simply "parroting" the language Wildstein used in describing the possible gridlock.
"Was that intended to be a code to punish Mayor Sokolich?" asked Kelly’s attorney, Michael Critchley.
"Absolutely not," Kelly replied.
A tearful Kelly said Christie bullied her on occasion, including one instance when she asked him to introduce local officials at an event.
Christie asked if she thought he was a "game show host," using an expletive and then threw a water bottle at her.
"I guess you’re a little afraid of the governor?" Critchley asked.
"Yes," Kelly said.
Also on Friday, Christie political adviser Michael DuHaime testified that he informed the governor ahead of a December 2013 news conference of Wildstein's claims that Kelly and campaign manager Bill Stepien knew about the closures in advance.
Christie then told reporters no one in his administration was involved. The next month, Christie apologized and fired Kelly and Stepien after Kelly's Aug. 13 email became public.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Additional reporting by Hilary Russ; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Leslie Adler)