Christie Allies Found Guilty on All Counts in Bridge Trial
(Bloomberg) -- Two former allies of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were convicted of joining a partisan plot to create crippling traffic near the George Washington Bridge as punishment for a local mayor who wouldn’t support the governor’s 2013 re-election.
Jurors found Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni guilty on all counts, including conspiracy, fraud and civil-rights charges, for plotting to misuse Port Authority property. The petty vendetta exposed the underbelly of New Jersey politics and helped torpedo the ambitions of Christie, once a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination and now an adviser to Donald Trump’s campaign.
Kelly wept as the verdict was read, while Baroni showed no emotion. Their lawyers have already laid the groundwork for an appeal after challenging instructions that jurors could convict without considering their motive for the plot. Sentencing is set for Feb. 21. The pair face as many as 20 years in prison, although they will receive much less under federal guidelines.
The Bridgegate trial put on display the grubbiness of New Jersey politics, where World Trade Center wreckage was passed out as political favors. It cast a particularly harsh light on Christie, who was portrayed as a vicious, obscenity-spewing bully who Kelly said knew about the lane closings in advance, despite his denials.
Baroni, Kelly and their lawyers left the courthouse and vowed to appeal the verdicts. “I am innocent of these charges, and I am very, very looking forward to the appeal," Baroni told reporters.
His lawyer, Michael Baldassare, said the case was "a disgrace" and criticized prosecutors for backing away from their original claim that the lane closings were driven by revenge.
Kelly’s lawyer, Michael Critchley, criticized the judge’s instructions and suggested an appeal would be successful. “Let’s have another press conference a year and a half from now,” he said, with his arm around Kelly. On Friday, U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton denied a motion for a mistrial.
Christie said in a statement that the jury’s verdict affirmed his decision to fire Kelly and Baroni, adding, “Let me be clear once again, I had no knowledge prior to or during these lane realignments, and had no role in authorizing them.” The governor is scheduled to campaign for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump this weekend.
Christie’s political ambitions were central to the plot during the first week of school in September 2013, prosecutors said. Commuters, ambulances and school buses were stuck in traffic in the neighboring borough of Fort Lee after the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which operates the bridge, closed two of three local access lanes to the span.
Prosecutors relied heavily on the testimony of David Wildstein, Baroni’s right-hand man at the Port Authority and the government’s star witness. Wildstein, who pleaded guilty in a bid for leniency, said he hatched the plan to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich. Over a riveting eight days of testimony, he detailed how Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, and Baroni, then the governor’s top executive at the Port Authority, helped him put the scheme into motion.
Wildstein said he and Baroni kept Christie informed of the plot, sharing a “one-constituent” rule of placing the governor’s interests above all else. Kelly sent him the infamous e-mail on Aug. 13, 2013, that said: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Wildstein responded, "Got it."
In the ensuing weeks, Wildstein said, he arranged for the Port Authority to close the lanes without notifying Fort Lee or motorists. He said Baroni blessed his plans, and that he took orders from Kelly, who oversaw a staff that moonlighted as Christie campaign workers and kept track of which elected officials endorsed the governor.
Sokolich and his police chief told jurors about the chaos caused by the lane closings, hampering emergency services and creating what the mayor called "concrete gridlock." Baroni ignored Sokolich’s increasingly desperate pleas, the mayor said. Wildstein testified that he agreed with Baroni and Kelly on the response: “Radio silence.”
The standoff ended when Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye, an appointee of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, ordered the lanes reopened on the fifth morning.
Kelly and Baroni each took the witness stand and said they didn’t intend to punish Sokolich -- the core of the government’s case against them. Rather, they said, they believed Wildstein when he said the lane closings were part of a study examining ways to speed traffic over the world’s busiest span. Lawyers for Kelly and Baroni assailed Wildstein as a dangerous liar and Christie’s enforcer at the Port Authority who framed their clients to please prosecutors and reduce a possible 15-year prison term.
Kelly claimed she was scapegoated by the Christie administration. In his summation, Critchley called Christie a “coward” for not testifying in court. The governor wasn’t called by either side.
After the trial, Wildstein’s attorney said his client felt vindicated by the jury’s verdict. “His integrity had been attacked,” said attorney Alan Zegas. “He was honest on the witness stand from beginning to end, and the jury found just that.”
The six-week trial also provided a rare inside peek at the day-to-day machinations of Christie’s political apparatus. Jurors heard about his Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, where Kelly worked and staffers maintained a spreadsheet to track gifts and favors to elected officials and how likely they were to endorse Christie.
Kelly’s office dangled such Port Authority inducements as tours of the World Trade Center site and steel remnants from the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Mayors got a chance to sit in the governor’s box at New York Giants football games or have breakfast with Christie at his mansion.
The effort to woo Democrats was part of a broader push to cast Christie as a bipartisan leader and top contender for the Republican presidential nomination. Elected officials were ranked from 1 to 10 on their likelihood to endorse Christie. Sokolich got a 4.