Federal indictments, a long-expected plea deal, and the first words from one of the central figures in the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal known as “Bridgegate.”
All were key elements of a fast-moving day that served as the most significant in over a year in the scandal that has drawn national attention and knocked Gov. Chris Christie out of the top tier of Republican presidential hopefuls.
Still, Christie got through yesterday without being directly tied to either the lane closures or the effort to conceal them after the fact, points he is likely to stress as he continues to position himself as a 2016 GOP primary contender.
But yesterday’s events also reinforced the key roles that two people with close ties to Christie played in the lane closures and revealed that a third former Christie ally is now cooperating with federal prosecutors, meaning he will likely testify if the case eventually goes to trial. And that could come even as Christie could potentially be in the thick of a presidential campaign.
As the day began, federal prosecutors appeared in U.S. District Court in Newark with former Port Authority official David Wildstein as he pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy for his role in the lane closures, which caused horrendous traffic in Fort Lee for several days.
Wildstein agreed with Judge Susan D. Wigenton when she asked if the lane closures were carried out to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who did not offer an endorsement of Christie’s successful 2013 re-election campaign, something the governor’s staffers aggressively sought.
Wildstein, a one-time schoolmate of Christie’s at Livingston High School, also agreed with the judge when she asked if closing the lanes on September 9, 2013 – when the new school year in Fort Lee was just beginning — was done to “maximize the punishment” for Sokolich.
Later, New Jersey’s U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman announced a nine-count federal indictment against former Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly and former Port Authority deputy executive director Bill Baroni. The indictment alleges they misused the agency’s resources — namely the bridge and Port Authority staff — also to punish Sokolich.
The plot, Fishman said, also “callously victimized the people of Fort Lee.”
And the indictment accuses Kelly and Baroni of concocting a “sham story” that the lane closures were for a traffic study that was really just a way to conceal the plot’s “true punitive motives.”
But the day ended with Kelly coming forward after over a year of silence to declare her innocence, and to pin the blame on Wildstein, who she called “a liar.”
It was Kelly who Christie immediately fired in January 2014 after an email she wrote the previous August that said it was “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” first surfaced. A report on the scandal prepared last year by lawyers hired by Christie also pinned much of the blame on Kelly, a rough portrayal that many deemed to have verged on sexism.
“I am not stupid. I am not weepy, insecure, unqualified, or overwhelmed,” Kelly fired back during a late-afternoon news conference at her attorney’s office in Livingston.
She also offered a juicy new charge, claiming it was “ludicrous” to suggest that she was the “only person in the governor’s office who was aware of the George Washington Bridge issue.”
[related]But at the end of the day, neither the indictments nor Wildstein’s speech offered any significant new information in a case that had already been comprehensively probed by state lawmakers after they launched their own investigation last year as more details of the lane-closure plot became public.
Christie, a former U.S. Attorney who rose to prominence himself by prosecuting public corruption, stressed in a statement issued yesterday afternoon that the new charges announced by Fishman’s office “make clear that what I’ve said from day one is true.”
“I had no knowledge or involvement in the planning or execution of this act,” the statement said. “The moment I first learned of this unacceptable behavior I took action, firing staff believed to be accountable, calling for an outside investigation, and agreeing to fully cooperate with all appropriate investigations, which I have done.”
But even though Fishman said he doesn’t anticipate charging anyone else with federal crimes in the wake of the lane closures, yesterday’s developments did not offer a full “all’s clear” for Christie and his administration.
For one, Fishman didn’t rule out that some matters could be fodder for state prosecutors. He also didn’t say that other potential investigations that sprang from the original probe, including reports that a “chairman’s flight” was arranged by United Airlines allegedly at the behest of former Port Authority Chairman David Samson between Newark airport and his vacation home in South Carolina, have ended.
Samson recently announced his resignation from the West Orange law firm that he founded.
And Wildstein’s attorney, Alan Zegas, yesterday also repeated an assertion first made in late January 2014 that “Mr. Christie knew of the lane closures as they were occurring and evidence exists that establishes that.”
“That is as much as I can say, as much as I will say,” Zegas said while speaking to reporters outside the courthouse.
Zegas also said Wildstein “deeply regrets” what happened and that he’s prepared to testify as a government witness if the case goes to trial. Wildstein is likely facing between 21 months and 27 months in federal prison, though the sentence will ultimately be at the discretion of Judge Wigenton.
Fishman said Kelly and Baroni, a former Republican state senator, are facing slightly longer sentences if they are ultimately convicted.
Baroni’s attorneys, meanwhile, also addressed reporters in Newark yesterday. And just like Kelly, they also accused Wildstein, Baroni’s former longtime friend, of not telling the truth.
“David Wildstein is a liar,” attorney Michael Baldassare said.
“We’re confident that everyone will see this desperate ploy for exactly what it is,” Baldassare said.
Michael Critchley, Kelly’s attorney, accused Wildstein during the Livingston news conference of cherry-picking specific items to pin blame on Kelly and Baroni that would be exposed if the case goes to trial.
“It’s a theory that’s based upon one person: David Wildstein,” Critchley said of the government’s case.
He also said there would eventually be an explanation for Kelly’s “Time for some traffic problems” email.
That is one of the questions that remains unanswered after yesterday’s events, said Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), the chair of the committee that first launched its probe of the Port Authority after a series of toll and fare hikes were approved abruptly by the agency in 2011.
“We don’t know who told Bridget Kelly that she should send that email,” Wisniewski said. He also said he wasn’t willing to speculate what other evidence could exist that would connect Christie to knowing about the lane closures as they were occurring.
Both Wisniewski and Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), who is the cochair of the Legislature’s investigative committee, said the developments yesterday also reinforced the need to move ahead with stalled Port Authority reform legislation.
Weinberg, who sat in court with Wisniewski as Wildstein lodged his plea agreement, called the outlining of what happened in September 2013 “sickening.” But she also acknowledged a “sense of relief” because “somebody stood up and took responsibility for what happened to the people that I represent.”