Questions on Christie role swirl after ex-allies’ conviction

November 4, 2016

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Two former aides to Gov. Chris Christie were convicted Friday of causing traffic jams for political revenge near the nation’s busiest bridge, a verdict that raised anew questions about why the Republican governor and his inner circle escaped prosecution.Christie Traffic Jams

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. Both defendants announced plans to appeal.

Testimony during the seven-week trial contradicted Christie’s statements about when he knew about the four days of gridlock in the town of Fort Lee in September 2013. The traffic jams were aimed at retaliating against Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie’s re-election, prosecutors alleged.

Other testimony described some of Christie’s top advisers and confidants either knowing about the plan ahead of time or soon afterward, and being aware of the purported 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 U.S. 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 Friday.

Baroni and Kelly were indicted last year. Also charged was former Port Authority official David Wildstein, who pleaded guilty and testified against them.

U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman declined to say Friday whether any of the testimony could lead to charges against Christie or others.

“Anybody can reach whatever conclusions they want about the strength of the evidence and about whether the evidence of anyone else’s involvement was in the hands of the government or came from the defense,” he said. “In May 2015, the evidence that we had was sufficient to indict and convict Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni and that’s the indictment we asked the grand jury to return.”

Christie said Friday that the verdict affirmed his decision to terminate Baroni and Kelly and that the jury held them responsible “for their own conduct.” He repeated his assertions that 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 authorizing 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 three years ago, Christie was considered a top GOP presidential contender and was on the verge of a runaway re-election victory to demonstrate his crossover appeal as a White House candidate.

Christie ultimately dropped out of the presidential race after a poor showing in the New Hampshire primary and said recently that the scandal probably influenced Donald Trump’s decision not to pick him as his running mate. Christie is a now a top Trump adviser and has campaigned for him.

Christie was expected to campaign for Trump in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire this weekend. A message left with the Trump campaign Friday wasn’t immediately returned.

Wildstein, a former political blogger and high school classmate of Christie’s, testified Christie was told about the traffic jam at a Sept. 11 memorial event in New York City, 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 not clear 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.

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 Feb. 21.

Wildstein faces a maximum of 15 years in prison, but under his plea agreement and federal sentencing guidelines, he could receive a sentence of 20 to 27 months. His sentencing hasn’t yet been scheduled.

Democratic state Sen. 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 defense portrayed Wildstein as a liar and a dirty trickster – “the Bernie Madoff of New Jersey politics” – and argued that 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 stand, Kelly explained she was referring to what she thought was a traffic study and expressing satisfaction that 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 among the governor and his inner circle that seemed straight out of “The Sopranos.”

According to testimony, Christie’s office also used the Port Authority to punish or reward local politicians. Among the goodies the agency dispensed were pieces of steel from the original World Trade Center, destroyed on 9/11.

“These convictions will be an essential defining feature of Christie’s legacy in office, and will forever taint how his administration is perceived and will be remembered,” Montclair State University political science professor Brigid Callahan Harrison said. “He is damaged by the narcissistic way in which he was portrayed during the trial, a narrative that was accepted by the jury.”