Bridgegate Ends in Prison Sentences for Ex-Christie Aides

Two one-time aides to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were sentenced to prison Wednesday for their roles in a conspiracy to close down access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in a brazen and bizarre scheme that used the bridge as a means of political payback against a small-town mayor who refused to endorse Christie for re-election in 2013.
by | March 30, 2017 AT 1:30 PM

By Paul Berger

Two one-time aides to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were sentenced to prison Wednesday for their roles in a conspiracy to close down access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in a brazen and bizarre scheme that used the bridge as a means of political payback against a small-town mayor who refused to endorse Christie for re-election in 2013.

The sentencing capped a 3 {-year political drama that irreversibly damaged Christie's reputation, undermined his presidential campaign and made the so-called Bridgegate scandal the butt of late-night talk show jokes.

For Bridget Anne Kelly, former deputy chief of staff to Christie, and Bill Baroni, Christie's former deputy executive director at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the scandal was more costly. Baroni was sentenced to two years in prison and Kelly 18 months, for their roles in the conspiracy, most infamously captured in an email from Kelly that read "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."

U.S. Attorney Bill Fitzpatrick called the sentences "fair and reasonable" in a midafternoon courthouse press conference following the sentencing.

Baroni and Kelly are each expected to appeal their convictions.

Kelly alluded to as much outside the courthouse in brief remarks following the sentencing.

"It's obviously a very difficult day for me and my children," Kelly said in remarks to the press. "This fight is far from over. I will not allow myself to be the scapegoat."

The scandal also led to an investigation that brought down Christie's friend and mentor David Samson, a former state attorney general and co-founder of a powerhouse law firm, who appeared in the same Newark courthouse at the beginning of March.

Samson, Christie's top appointee at the Port Authority, was sentenced to one year's home confinement for using his position as chairman of the agency to bribe United Airlines into running a money-losing flight between Newark and an airport close to his vacation home in South Carolina.

Both cases underlined how the Port Authority, a bi-state agency that owns and operates most of the region's major bridges, tunnels, airports, seaports, the PATH rail system and the 16-acre World Trade Center site, can be misused to court, bribe and punish business leaders and politicians.

In particular, the bridge lane closure trial showed how Christie, who relishes his persona as a tough talker, ran a calculating and at times vindictive administration that even in its earliest years had one eye on the 2016 presidential campaign.

On Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney, Lee Cortes, said that part of the reason the case had captured the public imagination was because the facts here are "almost unfathomable."

"The use of government power at a publicly owned bridge to create traffic in town just to mess with one person," Cortes said. "Those are the actions out of the playbook of some dictator of a banana republic. It's incomprehensible such action could take place here in the United States."

U.S. District Judge Susan D. Wigenton said Wednesday that it could be argued that Baroni was more culpable than Kelly. Wigenton said that the lane closures were "an outrageous display of abuse of power."

Baroni addressed the court, expressing remorse for his actions, saying, "I let the people in Fort Lee down."

"While a number of people outside of this courtroom were involved in Fort Lee that day _ some charged, some not _ that does not change the fact that I failed," he added. "I made the wrong choices, took the wrong guidance, listened to the wrong people. I was wrong and I am truly sorry."

Kelly regularly dabbed at her eyes with a tissue during the almost two-hour-long proceeding.

"I realize how destructive and frustrating the lane realignment was for the residents of Fort Lee," Kelly said as she addressed the judge. "I never intended to harm anyone. I am sorry if my actions in any way caused any harm."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Vikas Khanna called Kelly the "impetus behind the crime."

Khanna said that although the lane closure scheme was Wildstein's idea, "It was Miss Kelly who greenlighted it."

Referring for the infamous email "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Khanna said: "She ordered the operation."

During six weeks of testimony, prosecutors and defense attorneys described how the Christie administration showered Democratic officials with treats from the Port Authority "goody bag" in a bid to court endorsements to burnish the governor's bipartisan bona fides. Inducements included private tours of the World Trade Center construction site, agency grants and contracts, and pieces of burnt steel and flags from ground zero.

Staffers kept a spreadsheet of the favors so that they could always remind officials how generous the administration had been. Civic leaders perceived as disloyal to Christie, even those in towns that relied upon constant communication with the Port Authority because they host agency facilities, were punished with "radio silence."

David Wildstein, Baroni's second-in-command at the Port Authority and the man generally regarded as Christie's eyes, ears and enforcer at the agency, testified that it was his idea to use the bridge as a weapon against the mayor of Fort Lee, who had declined to endorse the governor, so that he would "fully understand that life would be more difficult for him in the second Christie term than it had been in the first."

Wildstein pleaded guilty to the conspiracy in 2015 and served as the government's star witness at the trial. A date for his sentencing has not been set.

Kelly and Baroni were found guilty of conspiring with Wildstein to create gridlock in Fort Lee by shutting down two of three access lanes to the bridge to punish Mayor Mark Sokolich for refusing to endorse Christie's 2013 re-election.

They deliberately ignored Sokolich's pleas for help during the week of the lane closures and Baroni covered up the true purpose of the scheme by insisting that it was part of a traffic study.

The closures were timed to coincide with the first week back to school in September, severely delaying school buses, commuters and emergency vehicles over four mornings. The restrictions were lifted on the fifth morning on the orders of Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's top appointee at the agency.

Christie denied all knowledge of the scheme and spent millions of taxpayer money on an external report that absolved him of blame. Though Christie was never charged in the criminal case, multiple witnesses at the trial testified that Christie was told of the lane closures before, during and shortly after they took place.

At a press conference in January 2014, Christie said that he had been blindsided by the bridge lane closure scheme.

But Baroni and Wildstein testified that they joked with Christie about the traffic problems in Fort Lee _ as they were occurring _ at a Sept. 11 anniversary event at the World Trade Center in 2013. Kelly said she informed Christie of the lane reductions before they began and that she warned him about traffic problems in Fort Lee during the week of the closures. Several top aides testified that they warned Christie that some of his top allies were involved with the closures in December, around the same time that Wildstein and Baroni was forced to resign.

The scandal metastasized in January 2014 following the publication by The Record and NorthJersey.com of an August 2013 email from Kelly to Wildstein _ "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." That was when Christie fired Kelly and distanced himself from his 2013 campaign manager Bill Stepien, who has gone on to become President Donald Trump's political director.

As comprehensive as the trial was, with dozens of witnesses and hundreds of excerpts from emails, text messages, documents and video recordings, it still left many unanswered questions, in particular who else knew about the scheme.

In the months leading up to the trial and in its aftermath, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, who has since left his post after Trump requested his resignation, emphasized that his office only prosecuted those for whom there was "evidence beyond a reasonable doubt." A group of media outlets fought for the release of a list compiled by prosecutors of people suspected of involvement in the plot. But one of the men on that list raised a legal challenge and succeeded in blocking its release.

(c)2017 The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)