Christie Ally, Key Culprit in Bridgegate Scandal, Escapes Prison Sentence

On Jan. 14, 2014, David Wildstein walked into the United States Attorney's Office here and started talking.
by | July 12, 2017 AT 5:15 PM

By Andrew Seidman

On Jan. 14, 2014, David Wildstein walked into the United States Attorney's Office here and started talking.

Wildstein, who had recently resigned as Gov. Christie's No. 2 executive appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, had a lot to say: about how he and his boss at the agency, Bill Baroni, used its resources (including 9/11 World Trade Center steel) as a "goody bag" to win support from mayors for Christie's 2013 reelection bid, and how he and Baroni served "one constituent" at the agency -- the Republican governor, not the public.

Most important, Wildstein told the government about a scheme, then the biggest and most bizarre political scandal in the country, that he carried out with Baroni and another Christie aide in September 2013: closing lanes at the George Washington Bridge to create massive traffic jams in a town whose mayor was seen as a political foe. Wildstein eventually pleaded guilty to two felony conspiracy charges.

On Wednesday, Wildstein was rewarded for his cooperation: Under a sentence issued by a federal judge, he won't spend a day in prison for his crimes.

U.S. District Judge Susan D. Wigenton, heeding prosecutors' recommendation, sentenced Wildstein to three years' probation and about $24,000 in fines and restitution. He must perform 500 hours of community service and may never hold public office.

Standing at the defense table, Wildstein, 55, said he apologized to Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, the target of the political revenge plot; to motorists who sat in traffic; and to "the people of the state of New Jersey, for magnifying the stereotype of politics in this state."

He called his actions "callous" and "stupid."

Then, without mentioning Christie by name, Wildstein ripped into the governor, whom he grew up with in Livingston. The bridge scandal tarred Christie's reputation and dealt a serious blow to his presidential ambitions.

Addressing the judge, Wildstein said he and the Christie allies he testified against put their "faith and trust in a man who neither earned it nor deserved it."

"I willingly drank the Kool-Aid of a man I'd known since I was 15 years old" and followed Christie's "hubris," he said.

"I've done the best I could to right this incredible wrong," Wildstein told the judge, adding that his cooperation with the government "helped the public learn the truth about what happened at the George Washington Bridge."

In a statement, a spokesman for Christie called Wildstein a liar who created the culture at the Port Authority and who "admitted throughout his testimony that he fabricated evidence of a relationship with the governor that never existed."

The spokesman, Brian Murray, said "the exemplary conduct and honorable service of hundreds of individuals" who have served under Christie "represent the culture of this administration, not Mr. Wildstein."

Christie and Wildstein attended high school together. When the bridge scandal erupted in January 2014, Christie distanced himself from Wildstein.

"You know, I was the class president and athlete," Christie said at a Jan. 9, 2014, news conference. "I don't know what David was doing during that period of time."

The two met as volunteers on Republican Thomas H. Kean's unsuccessful 1977 campaign for governor.

Wildstein, a self-described political junkie, volunteered for a campaign the first time at 12 and was mayor of Livingston at 23. He worked on many campaigns over the years, befriending Bill Stepien and Mike DuHaime, who would later form Christie's political brain trust.

Wildstein founded a news website, politicsnj.com (now politickernj), in 2000. Written under the pseudonym "Wally Edge," Wildstein's blog became a must-read for state political insiders. Wally Edge was a reference to a former New Jersey governor, Walter Edge.

In 2007, he sold the site to Observer Media Group, then owned by Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law and adviser.

Few people knew Wally Edge's identity then; one who did was Baroni, who met Wildstein on the unsuccessful 2000 U.S. Senate campaign of the late U.S. Rep. Bob Franks, and recruited him to the Port Authority in 2010, according to Wildstein's testimony.

During the trial, Wildstein described himself as the "bad cop" at the Port Authority. The head of the agency's main police union referred to Wildstein as "Meyer Lansky," after the mobster.

These days, Wildstein is working on a book with a former New York Yankees pitcher and helping another former major league player run a foundation to help young baseball players "regardless of their economic status," according to court documents.

That marks a change from the tough-guy persona Wildstein cultivated in politics and that was reflected in the bridge plot, which brought gridlock to Fort Lee, Bergen County, threatening public safety as first responders had trouble making their way through town.

Wildstein was the government's chief witness in last fall's trial of Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly, the governor's former deputy chief of staff.

The bistate agency owns and operates the region's bridges, tunnels, and airports.

A federal jury in November found Kelly and Baroni guilty of seven felony counts each, including misusing Port Authority resources, wire fraud, and civil rights violations. U.S. District Judge Susan D. Wigenton sentenced Kelly to 18 months in prison and Baroni to two years. They are appealing.

During eight days on the witness stand, Wildstein testified that he, Kelly, and Baroni conspired to close access lanes from Fort Lee to the bridge for four days in September 2013. Their goal: to punish Sokolich, the Democratic mayor, for his refusal to endorse the Republican governor's reelection campaign that year.

Then they promoted a sham story of a traffic study to cover up the bridge plot, prosecutors said. Wildstein also testified Christie knew of the traffic jams as they happened.

Wigenton told Wildstein his actions were "inexcusable." But during the trial, she said, "at no time, based on my personal observation from the bench, did you equivocate or attempt to favorably color your role in this entire fiasco."

Wigenton said Wildstein's cooperation with the government in its corruption case against former Port Authority Chairman David Samson -- who pleaded guilty to bribery as part of a scheme to shake down United Airlines -- also argued in favor of a lenient sentence.

In March, Samson was sentenced to four years' probation, including one year of home confinement.

Acting U.S. Attorney William Fitzpatrick told reporters that Wildstein's cooperation was "significant" in the Samson case.

"This culminates a sad chapter in the history of New Jersey," Wigenton said from the bench. "There clearly was a culture and environment in the governor's office that somehow made this outrageous conduct seem acceptable."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes said the government did not condone Wildstein's crimes, but said his "extraordinary cooperation" was essential to prosecuting Kelly and Baroni.

Prosecutors and Wildstein's attorney, Alan Zegas, said Wildstein turned over incriminating emails and text messages to a New Jersey legislative committee before the federal investigation had even begun.

Among those documents was an email Kelly sent Wildstein on Aug. 13, 2013, about a month before the lane closures that read: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."

"Got it," Wildstein responded.

The cache of documents was made public on Jan. 8, 2014, six days before Wildstein first met with the government.

Wildstein provided these documents "knowing that these smoking-gun emails and texts would be on the front page," Cortes told the judge Wednesday.

"Then he walked into U.S. Attorney's Office and said, 'I did this, this is why, and this is who I did it with,'" Cortes said.

Wildstein backed up his statements by handing over his iPhone, computers, and email accounts to law enforcement before he was offered a deal, Cortes said.

Wildstein, who lives in Florida with his wife, returned to Newark on Wednesday and met prosecutors once again. Around 11 a.m., he walked into Wigenton's courtroom, shook hands with the three assistant U.S. attorneys who handled the case, and took a seat to await his sentence.

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