Questions mount over Chris Christie's role in 'Bridgegate' after former allies’ conviction
Two former aides to Republican Governor Chris Christie were convicted on Friday of causing epic traffic jams for political revenge near the nation’s busiest bridge, a verdict that further damages his legacy and raises anew questions about why he and his inner circle escaped prosecution.
Bridget Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, Christie’s appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, were found guilty of all counts against them. Kelly cried as the verdict was read; Baroni showed no emotion. They announced plans to appeal.
The verdict also had ramifications on the presidential campaign trail, where Christie became an adviser to Republican Donald Trump after his own campaign collapsed, in part because of the bridge case. Before the verdict was issued, Trump’s campaign had announced Christie would stump for him in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania on Saturday, but later said he would not be on the trail Saturday.
Testimony during the seven-week trial contradicted Christie’s statements about when he knew about the four days of gridlock at the base of the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee in September 2013. The traffic jams were aimed at retaliating against Democratic Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie’s re-election, prosecutors alleged.
Other testimony described some of Christie’s top advisers and confidants knowing about the plan ahead of time or soon afterward and being aware of the political motivation well before Christie told reporters in December 2013 that none of his staff was involved.
Baroni’s attorney, Michael Baldassare, called the case “a disgrace” and said the US attorney’s office should be “ashamed” of where it drew the line on who to charge.
“They should have had belief in their own case to charge powerful people, and they did not,” Baldassare said.
Baroni and Kelly were indicted last year. Also charged was former Port Authority official David Wildstein, who pleaded guilty and testified against them.
US Attorney Paul Fishman declined to say whether any of the testimony could lead to charges against Christie or others. He said prosecutors only charged people where they had “evidence beyond a reasonable doubt” to convict.
Christie said the verdict affirmed his decision to terminate Baroni and Kelly and the jury held them responsible “for their own conduct”. He repeated his assertions he had no knowledge of the plot and said he would “set the record straight” soon about “the lies told by the media and in the courtroom”.
“I had no knowledge prior to or during these lane realignments and had no role in authorising them,” Christie said. “No believable evidence was presented to contradict that fact. Anything said to the contrary over the past six weeks in court is simply untrue.”
At the time the scandal unfolded, Christie was considered a top presidential contender and was on the verge of a runaway re-election victory to demonstrate his crossover appeal.
Christie ultimately dropped out of the presidential race after a poor showing in the New Hampshire primary and said recently the scandal probably influenced Trump’s decision not to pick him as a running mate. Christie is chairman of Trump’s transition team, in charge of hiring thousands of employees if he wins the presidency.
John Podesta, chairman of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign, called on Trump to ask Christie to resign from the transition team.
Wildstein, a former political blogger and high school classmate of Christie’s, testified Christie was told about the traffic jam at a September 11 memorial event in New York while the gridlock in Fort Lee was in progress. He said Christie laughed and made a sarcastic joke when he learned of Sokolich’s distress over not getting his calls returned.
It was unclear from Wildstein’s testimony whether Christie knew then that the mess was manufactured for political reasons; however, Kelly testified she told Christie about Sokolich’s concerns about political retaliation during the week of the traffic jams at the bridge, which connects New York and Fort Lee.
The federal jury took five days to reach a verdict, convicting Baroni and Kelly of conspiracy, misapplying the property of the Port Authority, wire fraud and deprivation of civil rights. The most serious charges carry up to 20 years in prison, but Fishman said the defendants likely would receive far less time. Sentencing was scheduled for February 21.
Wildstein faces a maximum of 15 years in prison, but under his plea agreement and sentencing guidelines he could receive a sentence of 20 to 27 months. His sentencing hasn’t been scheduled.
Democratic state Senator Loretta Weinberg, who helped lead a legislative effort to investigate the lane closings, said it was a terrible day for New Jersey and “a terrible day to have a spotlight on the kind of administration that was run”.
The defence portrayed Wildstein as a liar and a dirty trickster – “the Bernie Madoff of New Jersey politics” – and argued Christie and his inner circle had thrown Kelly under the bus. Kelly and Baroni, both 44, testified that they believed Wildstein that the lane closings were part of a legitimate traffic study.
“They want that mother of four to take the fall for them. Cowards. Cowards,” Kelly attorney Michael Critchley said in a thundering closing argument.
One of the most damning pieces of evidence was an email in which Kelly wrote: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Then, as the gridlock unfolded and Sokolich complained about children unable to get to school, she texted: “Is it wrong that I am smiling?”
On the witness stand, Kelly explained she was referring to what she thought was a traffic study and expressing satisfaction it was going well.
Trial testimony reinforced Christie’s reputation among his critics as a bully, with accounts of profane tirades, threats of bodily harm and tough-guy posturing that seemed straight out of The Sopranos.
Montclair State University political science professor Brigid Callahan Harrison said Christie was damaged by “the narcissistic way” he was portrayed at the trial.
“These convictions will be an essential defining feature of Christie’s legacy in office,” she said, “and will forever taint how his administration is perceived and will be remembered.”