Official: Key bridge case witness a cancer on transit agency

AP News
|
Posted: Oct 20, 2016 4:40 PM

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — A New York official on the bistate agency that runs the George Washington Bridge on Thursday called the government's key witness in a politically motivated lane closing case a "dangerous character" in the agency.

Outgoing Port Authority of New York and New Jersey board member Scott Rechler testified in federal court that former agency executive David Wildstein created a politicized culture that sent fear through the staff. Rechler, Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's top appointee to the agency's board, described Wildstein as a "cancer."

"He created a culture that I think sends fear through a lot of the Port Authority's staff," Rechler said of Wildstein. "My view was that David Wildstein was a dangerous character within the Port Authority."

Wildstein, who has pleaded guilty in the bridge scheme, has testified for the prosecution in the trial of two former aides to Republican Gov. Chris Christie. A key witness, Wildstein has suggested Christie knew about the bridge scheme as it was unfolding, an allegation the governor denies.

Rechler also testified that Cuomo told him that he discussed political fallout from the lane closings with Christie in October 2013, a month after it happened. Rechler says Cuomo told him Christie said the board chairman complained about the agency's director getting involved with politics.

"Governor Christie mentioned to him that David Samson was once again complaining about (Port Authority Executive Director) Pat Foye interfering, getting involved in politics," Rechler said. "He asked me what was going on and I relayed to him what was going on."

Both Cuomo and Christie deny discussing the lane closures.

Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for Cuomo, said that Rechler's testimony "confirms what we have said all along and further disproves Mr. Wildstein's false hearsay testimony from earlier this month."

Bill Baroni and Bridget Kelly are charged with orchestrating the lane closures at the bridge, which connects Fort Lee with New York City, to punish Fort Lee's Democratic mayor for not endorsing Christie's re-election bid. They have pleaded not guilty. Christie wasn't charged in the alleged scheme.

Rechler, whose term as a board member ended Thursday, was called as a defense witness by Kelly. She is expected to take the stand Friday.

Rechler also testified that Samson, the former board chairman and Christie confidante, worked to undermine the power of the New York side to gain leverage for New Jersey. Rechler testified that Samson told New York officials that they made a mistake by leaking the lane closings to reporters.

Samson was not charged in the case, but pleaded guilty to bribery in a separate investigation related to getting a flight to his vacation home in South Carolina in exchange for agency help for United Airlines.

Wildstein testified earlier this month that Samson told him Christie and Cuomo discussed issuing a report when the media began scrutinizing the lane closures. Cuomo denied that happened, calling it "gossip that he's passing on." No report was ever published.

Azzopardi said there was no conversation between the governors "concerning a 'plan' to have Pat Foye stand down or to have the issue 'whitewashed' through a report. Pat Foye was in fact a whistle-blower — he never stood down and no report was ever prepared or issued."