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Opinion: Even Before Bridget Kelly, Christie’s Campaign Was Floundering

The former deputy chief of staff in Christie’s office says she couldn’t be the only one who knew about Bridgegate

carl golden
Carl Golden

Bridget Anne Kelly’s fierce, caustic response to her indictment in the “Bridgegate” scandal -- particularly her assertion that others in Gov. Chris Christie’s office knew of the plot to close lanes at the George Washington Bridge -- guarantees that the scandal will continue to haunt the governor for months, even as he struggles to distance himself from it by insisting that the findings of U. S. Attorney Paul Fishman vindicate him.

Kelly, a former deputy chief of staff in Christie’s office, was indicted along with Bill Baroni, former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, on nine counts of conspiracy for their roles in the lane closings in September 2013.

Both were named by David Wildstein, former director of the office of interstate capital projects at the Authority, as joining with him in the scheme to close the access lanes and create a four-day traffic jam in Fort Lee to punish the town’s mayor for refusing to endorse Christie’s reelection bid.

Wildstein cooperated with federal investigators and pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy.

While both Kelly and Baroni quickly branded Wildstein a liar, it was Kelly’s aggressive reaction that caught most of the attention. It was, she said, ludicrous to believe she was the sole staffer in the governor’s office aware of the plot. She followed with a veiled but ominous threat that she was tired of the lies that were told about her, indicating that when the time is appropriate, she’ll disclose the names of others involved or who knew in advance or in the aftermath of the closures.

Nothing whets the appetite of the media or sets the speculation juices flowing more than tantalizing hints of official misconduct in high places. Kelly did not merely blurt out her accusations in a moment of uncontrolled anger; rather, it was a calculated strategy designed to send a message that she was ready and willing to back them up with names, date, and places. Her attorney sat at her side and, had he held misgivings, would have advised her to temper her remarks or be more circumspect. He didn’t.

There existed a certain element of payback in Kelly’s comments, a sense that she relished the opportunity to use the moment and attention to strike back at Christie for his January 2014 news conference when he publicly fired her and characterized her as a lying, deceitful individual who betrayed his trust. It is likely, also, that her remarks were directed toward the law firm hired by the governor to investigate the lane closures for its gratuitously insulting portrayal of her as lovesick and emotionally unstable. The firm cleared Christie of any involvement, even though its findings were widely discredited as lacking any credibility as an objective search for the truth.

That Kelly was a central figure in the scheme is indisputable. It was she, after all, who sent the now infamous “time for some traffic troubles in Fort Lee” email to Wildstein, setting in motion the chain of events that ultimately led to last week’s indictments.

She also exchanged gleeful e-mails with Wildstein as the extent of the havoc the lane closures produced became apparent. Her efforts to explain away her words as misunderstood sarcasm fell flat.

While Christie and his allies strive to emphasize that nothing in the findings and indictments announced by the U.S. Attorney implicated him, the scandal will dominate the political environment, impacting Christie’s effectiveness as governor as well as his future should he decide to continue to remain active at a national level.

While speculation differed over whether the scandal effectively ended any chance of Christie’s viability as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, the reality is that his campaign -- though unannounced officially -- had achieved little traction in any event.

He reached fourth place in a few polls, but in others had fallen deeply into single digits, sharing fifth, sixth, or seventh place with others whose candidacies had already been written off. The scandal may prove to be the coup de grace, but it’s more in the nature of the mercy killing of a campaign that has been struggling badly with very little hope of rising to the point of becoming seriously competitive.

Fishman’s findings also renewed criticism of the Christie Administration as a cultural den of political intrigue where retribution against enemies -- real or perceived -- was encouraged and celebrated. Abusing governmental power and authority was business as usual because, critics claim, the governor had created an atmosphere in which opponents of his politics and his policies were fair game, targets to be punished.

Inexperienced people like Kelly were unaccustomed to handling the power suddenly found in their hands and it controlled them rather than the reverse. Bridgegate -- or something similar -- was the inevitable result of such an environment.

In announcing the indictments, Fishman was careful to point out that the investigation remains open and if his office receives additional evidence, further action on his part is possible.

He chose his words carefully as well when he said he anticipated no further indictments relating to the lane closures, leaving open the possibility of investigating allegations of a coverup or pursuing accusations of misconduct on the part of Port Authority officials, most notably former authority chairman David Samson, a close associate --politically, personally, and professionally -- of the governor.

Whether Kelly and Baroni maintain their positions of noninvolvement and eventually reach a trial is unclear. Fishman himself indicated that it is often the case that individuals under indictment will choose to plead guilty, admit their actions, and provide further evidence.

When facing a potentially lengthy and costly trial, deal-making with prosecutors is an appealing alternative.

There is no question that Christie has absorbed a serious blow, that he’s been weakened, and that questions will be raised about his ability to deal with a Democratic-controlled Legislature over issues such as anemic economic growth, short funding of the public-pension system, and renewal of the Transportation Trust Fund.

His poll numbers in new Jersey have fallen to historic lows as has the public’s perception of his handling of the state’s urgent problems.

There is more to come, though, and presumably more to be heard from Kelly and Baroni, enough possibly to ensnare others in what is arguably the state’s most far-reaching political/governmental scandal.

Sadly, in a state stained repeatedly by corruption throughout its history, it seems likely it will be again.

Carl Golden served as press secretary for Republican Gov. Thomas Kean for eight years and as communications director for Republican Gov. Christie Whitman for three years. He is currently a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

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