WOODLAND PARK, N.J. — Bill Stepien, who was banished from Gov. Chris Christie's inner circle after revelations in the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal, has been hired by President-elect Donald Trump, he announced Wednesday.
Stepien, who has also done work on a think tank led by Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, will serve as Trump's deputy assistant and political director. His hiring was part of a "first wave" of White House staff announced by the incoming president.
"These individuals will be key leaders in helping to implement the president-elect's agenda and bring real change to Washington," incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said in a statement. "Each of them has been instrumental over the last several months, and in some cases years, in helping the president-elect."
Like Christie, Stepien had been on a trajectory to the White House until documents released three years ago drew him into what has become known as Bridgegate, the lane-realignment scheme at the bridge designed to punish a political opponent of the governor's. But Christie, once a top contender for the Republican Party's presidential nomination, exited the race last February after a pair of bruising defeats. And despite his loyalty to Trump, Christie was passed over for high-level positions in his administration.
Stepien, on the other hand, was rewarded for his work on the Trump campaign and will serve in a top role. He had been Trump's national field director, responsible for overseeing voter turnout in what was largely seen as a long-shot campaign.
Christie once hailed Stepien as "the best Republican operative in the country." Now Stepien has been able to rehabilitate his career after his dismissal by Christie for what he called "callous indifference" shown in emails released in the bridge investigation and after his name was frequently invoked during the lane-closure trial.
Stepien's successor running the now-defunct Intergovernmental Affairs unit, former deputy chief Bridget Anne Kelly, and former Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni were found guilty in November on charges related to the September 2013 lane realignments in Fort Lee. Prosecutors say the traffic-inducing lane closures were intended to punish the town's Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, for not endorsing Christie for re-election.
Stepien has acknowledged that he knew of the plan devised by David Wildstein, who pleaded guilty in the case, but has said he did not take it seriously. During the trial, Wildstein, who served as Baroni's deputy at the Port Authority, said he told Stepien in August 2013 about the scheme, and that Stepien asked him what "story" he would use should it gain notice. Stepien's attorney called Wildstein's testimony "self-serving" and noted that Stepien had not been charged in the investigation.
Documents in the trial showed Stepien seeming to relish his role as one of Christie's most trusted advisers. Even after moving on from the governor's office to running his re-election campaign, Stepien wielded authority in Trenton, delivering orders to staff and aiding their efforts securing endorsements. He instructed one worker to lose the number of a county freeholder who was critical of Christie and to freeze out the Democratic mayor of Jersey City, Steven Fulop, who allegedly indicated he would endorse Christie in 2013 but did not.
When Kelly told Stepien she would cancel meetings with Fulop, Stepien told her it was "perfect," according to court documents.
"It will send a good message to this guy," said Stepien, who also called Fulop "quite the snake."
Having successfully run Christie's two gubernatorial campaigns in New Jersey, Stepien was expected to rise in national politics during Christie's second term. He was set to advise the Republican Governors Association and had been to lead the New Jersey Republican State Committee. But when emails showed him calling the Fort Lee mayor an "idiot" when he complained of traffic at the bridge, Christie cut ties with Stepien, effectively stripping him of his leadership roles.
Stepien re-emerged a year later, doing consulting work for a Republican consulting firm in Minnesota, and he helped the Assembly Republicans' 2015 campaign, in which the party lost four seats. Last spring, Stepien was brought on to help lead the think tank of Guadagno as she readied for her anticipated run for governor. He resigned from his position as the group's executive director effective Dec. 31, said Jerry Langer, a member of Building a Better New Jersey Together's board of directors.
"Bill's a great man, a great professional, and I wish him all the best with his new challenge, and I'm sure he'll do a great job," Langer said. Stepien, he added, "left us in a really good place."