By Karen Freifeld and Joseph Ax
(Reuters) - Two former associates of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie went on trial on Monday over their alleged roles in the "Bridgegate" scandal, which helped derail his presidential hopes.
Opening statements began in federal court in Newark, New Jersey, in the trial of Bridget Anne Kelly, the governor's former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
The two are accused of orchestrating the closure of access lanes at the George Washington Bridge, a critical link connecting the two states, in September 2013 to punish a local Democratic mayor for refusing to support the re-election of Christie, a Republican.
Christie himself has not been charged, and he has denied having advance knowledge of the alleged plot.
According to reports, a federal prosecutor told jurors that Baroni and David Wildstein, another former Port Authority official and Christie confidante, had bragged to the governor about the closures shortly after they began.
Wildstein has pleaded guilty and is expected to testify for the government. He has claimed that evidence exists showing Christie was aware of the scheme.
But Michael Baldassare, a lawyer for Baroni, told jurors that Wildstein was “vindictive” and a “habitual liar,” who Christie had referred to as his "fixer," and who should not be trusted.
“The evidence will show their case is David Wildstein," Baldassare said. "The government made a deal with the devil and they’re stuck with him."
"Bridgegate" came to light in January 2014, shortly after Christie had easily won re-election, and when he was seen as a potential 2016 Republican presidential nominee.
The scandal helped to erode his once-high approval ratings, and Christie ran unsuccessfully in several Republican primaries this year for the White House.
Prosecutors will likely introduce emails and text messages between Kelly, Baroni and Wildstein to show they arranged the lane closures as payback against Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, for refused to endorse Christie.
The shutdown caused several days of gridlock, and hurt local businesses.
Baroni and Kelly have pleaded not guilty to wire fraud, civil rights deprivation and conspiracy charges.
The trial before U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton is scheduled to last approximately six weeks.
(Reporting by Karen Freifeld and Joseph Ax; Editing by David Gregorio and Jeffrey Benkoe)