A former high-ranking member of Gov. Chris Christie’s administration and a former top official he sent to the Port Authority are scheduled to be arraigned in federal court this morning, but it’s unlikely any resolution to the George Washington Bridge lane–closure scandal will come from today’s events.
That’s because right now, there are still several accounts of the alleged September 2013 plot known as “Bridgegate” that still have to be sorted out. At this point, the players are saying that the public will have to wait until trial for their full explanations.
One account has been put forward by U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman in a nine-count indictment announced on Friday after former Port Authority official David Wildstein pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy, claiming he schemed with former Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly and former Port Authority deputy executive director Bill Baroni to close local bridge-access lanes in Fort Lee for several days to punish Fort Lee Mayor Sokolich for not endorsing Christie during his successful 2013 re-election campaign.
But Kelly offered another theory on Friday while making her first public comments in over a year, suggesting others in the governor’s office also knew of the “George Washington Bridge issue.”
And the attorney for Wildstein provided yet another take while speaking to reporters outside the courthouse in Newark. “Evidence exists” that Christie himself knew of the lane closures as they were occurring, attorney Alan Zegas said, an assertion that seemingly contradicts Christie’s earlier statements that he only found out about the lane closures after the fact.
Baroni’s lawyers, meanwhile, accused Wildstein of lying about their client’s role and disputed that he knew that a traffic study the indictment papers call a “cover story” was anything but legitimate.
“There are at least three different versions of the facts that are out there,” noted state Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) while appearing yesterday on ABC’s “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos.
It’s if and how those different versions will be reconciled over the next several months leading up to a possible trial that will determine whether there’s more to a scandal that has already helped knock the governor from the top tier of GOP candidates who are exploring running for U.S. president in 2016 — something Christie has spent the better part of the past two years positioning himself for.
“We don’t have all the answers yet,” said Wisniewski, who launched the original investigation into the lane closures and chaired a special legislative committee that took testimony from several key witnesses throughout 2014.
Fishman’s indictment rests on a federal law — section 666 of title 18 of the federal code — that makes it illegal for an agency that receives funding from the government to misuse those resources. In this case, Fishman explained, the law is triggered by the misuse of the bridge by closing the lanes, and of employees of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey by carrying out a traffic-study that the indictment papers said was simply a “cover story.”
“When they agreed that they would misuse the resources, misapply, take for their own purposes, resources of the Port Authority,” Fishman said.
[related]But that’s also why others who were not government employees but had knowledge of the alleged plot — including former Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien, whose connection was detailed during the legislative investigation and in evidence turned up in a separate report prepared by lawyers Christie hired to probe the matter last year – were likely not charged under Fishman’s investigation. Fishman made it clear when speaking to the press Friday that there are unindicted coconspirators but refused to name them. He also said he was under obligation to seek indictment against those he had every confidence he could convict.
Yet Kelly’s version of the events indicates there were other New Jersey employees – specifically in the governor’s office — that knew of the lane closures, though she didn’t name anyone during a news conference Friday held at her attorney’s law office in Livingston.
“For the indictment to suggest that I was the only person in the governor’s office who was aware of the George Washington Bridge issue is ludicrous,” said Kelly, who became well known last January after her August 2013 email declaring it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” first surfaced.
Kelly’s lawyer, well-known defense attorney Michael Critchley, said they would be ready to take the case to trial to prove her innocence.
“She’s not falling on her sword for anyone,” Critchley said. When asked why Kelly did not offer to give evidence in return for a plea deal, Critchley said “who says I didn’t.” But without an offer of “full immunity” he said he would take the case to court, believing the evidence would prove her innocence.
It appears Kelly will be claiming that her famous email “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” was meant as a sarcastic or humorous remark, rather than the signal to go-ahead that Wildstein claims it was. Critchley told the press that Wildstein cherry-picked the emails to submit to the U.S. Attorney’s office to put himself in the best light, but when all is revealed, it will prove Kelly was not a culprit.
Then there’s the version advanced outside of court on Friday by Zegas, who claimed “there is a lot more that will come out.” He first maintained “evidence exists” Christie knew of the lane closures as they occurred in January 2014. Fishman said on Friday that he couldn’t comment on that topic at all.
Lastly, there’s also the case that Baroni’s lawyers attempted to make on Friday when they predicted the former GOP state senator “will be fully exonerated.” The lawyers pointed to the legitimacy of the traffic study that the indictment papers called only a “cover story.”
“Bill was given pages and pages of data, emails and documents that would have convinced anyone a legitimate traffic study had been conducted,” Baroni’s lawyers said in statement.
They want the U.S. Attorney’s Office to break the sanctity of the grand-jury proceedings and “release as much information as possible.”
“The taxpayers who footed the bill for this multimillion dollar investigation have a right to know what the U.S. Attorney’s Office discovered during its year-plus investigation,” Baroni’s lawyers said.
For his part, Christie has pointed to Friday’s events as confirmation that he wasn’t involved in the lane closures, something more than half of the New Jersey voters surveyed in a recent Quinnipiac University poll said they don’t believe.
Christie’s office issued a statement Friday saying “it is time to let the justice system do its job.”
But Wisniewski, the state assemblyman, said even though there’s “no direct evidence that the governor knew,” the latest events have yet to give him “vindication.”
“The governor appointed these people to high positions within his administration,” Wisniewski reminded. “One of them pled guilty (and) two of them have been indicted.”