NEWARK — The George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal crept closer to Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, as lawyers for one of his former aides began her defense in federal court here on Wednesday.
The aide, Bridget Anne Kelly, and another former Christie official are accused of scheming to shut down access lanes to the bridge in 2013 to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., for declining to endorse the governor for re-election, and then covering up the closings as a traffic study.
Ms. Kelly’s lawyers argued that nearly everyone in the governor’s inner circle knew about the plot and, as reporters and legislators intensified their scrutiny, scrambled to cover it up. Ms. Kelly was implicated — made a “human piñata,” as Michael Critchley, her lead lawyer, said — months after the lane closings, when it was revealed that she had sent an incriminating, and now-famous, email: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
As his first witness, Mr. Critchley called Michael Drewniak, the governor’s former press secretary.
Mr. Drewniak had been close to David Wildstein, who has pleaded guilty to orchestrating the lane closings and is now the chief witness against Ms. Kelly and Bill Baroni, Mr. Christie’s former top staff appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge.
Using a series of emails and texts, Mr. Critchley showed that Mr. Wildstein, who had been hired as Mr. Christie’s enforcer at the Port Authority, looked to Mr. Drewniak for direction on many issues well before the lane closings. At Mr. Wildstein’s request, Mr. Drewniak called and yelled at a Port Authority press secretary, telling him that he owed loyalty to the governor and that if he did not show it he would lose his job. (Writing to Mr. Wildstein afterward, Mr. Drewniak said he had left the press aide with “the proper level of fear.”) On another issue, he instructed Mr. Wildstein to simply “skip past” the highest-ranking official at the Port Authority — appointed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York — to issue a statement.
Mr. Drewniak, in turn, was consulting with and seeking guidance from Kevin O’Dowd, the governor’s chief of staff and Ms. Kelly’s boss, and continued to do so as the lane closings began to grow into a scandal.
Mr. Wildstein has testified that he told the governor about the scheme during the five days of the lane closings in September 2013. And Mr. Critchley has hinted in questions to earlier witnesses that Ms. Kelly will testify — she will take the stand as early as Thursday — that Mr. Christie, a Republican, knew about the scheme before it started.
His hope is that jurors will wonder why other people in the governor’s office are not on trial and decide that Ms. Kelly has been unfairly scapegoated.
When a reporter first asked the Port Authority in mid-September about the closings, which came without notice to the public or to local officials in Fort Lee and gridlocked the town, Mr. Wildstein forwarded the inquiry to Mr. Drewniak.
The next week, a reporter from The Wall Street Journal sent Mr. Drewniak an email asking whether the governor had been aware of the closings. Mr. Drewniak responded that traffic studies “are done all the time.”
He then forwarded the message to Ms. Kelly, with a note saying he was “coming to chat.”
Mr. Critchley, Ms. Kelly’s lawyer, pressed Mr. Drewniak about whether he had asked Ms. Kelly about what the governor knew; after all, that was the question in the forwarded email. Mr. Drewniak, who is known for his combative style and who sat on the stand for three hours with his mouth curled as if he had a very sore molar, insisted that he had not.
Mr. Drewniak had told a grand jury in the case that he had learned a month after the lane closings that Ms. Kelly and Bill Stepien, the governor’s campaign manager, were on emails indicating they knew about the closings.
On Oct. 17, The Journal was preparing an article that said Mr. Wildstein had directed bridge workers to close the lanes. Mr. Drewniak, who was aware of the article, texted Mr. O’Dowd, the governor’s chief of staff, telling him that a new “high level” of trouble “is hitting the fan tonight on the Fort Lee/GWB issue.”
Mr. Critchley asked Mr. Drewniak if that text was to inform Mr. O’Dowd that there were emails indicating Ms. Kelly and Mr. Stepien knew about the closings.
No, Mr. Drewniak said, “this had to do with the new high level of interest from legislators.”
But, Mr. Critchley said, the Legislature was already having hearings. What was its new level of interest?
“It had something to do with legislators,” Mr. Drewniak said. “Precisely what it was, I can’t remember.”
When the Journal story appeared the next day, Mr. Wildstein sent it to Mr. Drewniak with a note saying, “Unless you say otherwise, we will continue not to respond.”
“Yeah,” Mr. Drewniak texted back. “Just saw it. Sigh. I’m gonna discuss with O’Dowd.”
On Dec. 4, Mr. Wildstein told Mr. Drewniak over dinner that he had told the governor, as well as Ms. Kelly and Mr. Stepien, about the lane-closing scheme. The next day, Mr. Drewniak testified, he repeated this to Mr. O’Dowd and the governor.
“Did you ask Governor Christie or Kevin O’Dowd, ‘Did anyone go talk to Bridget Kelly?’” Mr. Critchley asked him.
“I don’t think I did then,” Mr. Drewniak said.
Mr. Critchley asked Mr. Drewniak how many times he had talked to Mr. Wildstein about the lane closings from September 2013 to January 2014, when Ms. Kelly’s “time for some traffic problems” email was revealed by a legislative subpoena, and Mr. Christie fired her.
“Many times,” Mr. Drewniak said.
“Did he ever once tell you that ‘Bridget Kelly instructed me to shut the lanes’?” Mr. Critchley asked, his voice rising.
“No,” Mr. Drewniak said.