This is a breaking news story and will be updated as more details become available.
A jury has found two former top employees of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie guilty on all counts for shutting down access lanes to the George Washington Bridge to punish a Christie foe.
Former Port Authority deputy executive director Bill Baroni and former Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly were found guilty of conspiracy, misapplication of public resources, and fraud.
The two face sentences of up to 20 years in prison on the most serious charges. The sentencing has been scheduled for February 21, 2017. As the subsequent counts of “guilty” were read out, Bridget Kelly, a mother of four teenagers, started to silently weep.
Outside the courthouse, her lawyer, Michael Critchley said he still believed in his client’s innocence, and vowed to appeal. Baroni’s attorney, Mike Baldassare, said the prosecution should be “ashamed” of its case,” and added: “they should have had belief in their own case to charge powerful people and they did not.”
The U.S. Attorney, Paul Fishman, said he “took no pleasure in this verdict,” but was “proud” of his office’s work.
The two were found guilty, in effect, of trying too hard to boost Christie’s political fortunes in preparation for his presidential campaign. Christie allies sought endorsements from Democratic mayors in his 2013 reelection. When Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich balked on that request, his town was gridlocked with four mornings in a row of traffic that delayed ambulances, stranded kids on school buses, and left untold numbers late for work and medical appointments.
The damning testimony of the scheme’s architect, David Wildstein and reams of documentary evidence, particularly the incriminating, infamous email from Kelly — “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” — were too great for the defense to surmount.
“The evidence in this case has shown that you when the spotlight wasn’t burning on them, when they weren’t under investigation, when they thought no one else was watching, the defendants engaged in a scheme to punish Mayor Sokolich,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Vikas Khanna said in his summations. “The evidence has shown that not only did they execute this scheme, but delighted in it.”
The jury of seven women and five men agreed. Their verdict comes at a time when Christie’s popularity among New Jersey residents is at 21 percent, a historic low. He is planning to campaign for Donald Trump this weekend in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.
Though Christie himself was not on trial, the convictions tarnish the reputation of a man who was once the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, before becoming governor and a GOP candidate for president, At the Republican National Convention in July, Christie, who is the Transition Chairman for Trump, thundered — “Guilty or not guilty?” — in reference to Hillary Clinton.
But now the verdict “guilty” has been rendered four times for aides Christie once named to some of the most sensitive positions in his administration: Kelly, Baroni, and Wildstein, for their role in the Bridgegate scandal, and David Samson, the former chairman of the Port Authority and one of Christie’s closest friends, for demanding a special flight route from United Airline in exchange for special treatment from the Port Authority.
A fifth Christie aide, former transportation commissioner Jamie Fox, still faces charges in the bribery scandal.
Christie has repeatedly denied culpability and has pointed to three investigations that he says “exonerated” him. But the court case, where evidence was presented under oath, was the opposite of an exoneration, painting a picture of a micromanaging, often abusive man personally obsessed with settling scores with political foes.
Christie has never testified under oath, and the conviction of his top aides points the spotlight even more starkly on him, asking how the hands-on, threatening figure that emerged in the testimony and documents could have been oblivious of the “traffic problems” scheme.
After the verdict was announced, Christie issued the following statement:
— WNYC (@WNYC) November 4, 2016
Both the prosecution and the defense presented evidence that Christie, who was not charged, was personally involved in the lane closures. Kelly testified she told Christie about the lane closures before she wrote the “traffic problems” email, and twice again, while they were occurring, even going so far as to discuss that Sokolich, the Fort Lee mayor, was complaining of potential retaliation.
And Baroni and Wildstein testified that they discussed the closures with Christie while they were going on, at a memorial service for the 12th anniversary of the September 11 attacks at the World Trade Center site.
During his closing arguments, Kelly’s attorney, Michael Critchley, thundered at one point that the prosecution could have called Christie to contradict her, but did not, meaning her testimony stands, unrebutted. “All you have to do is have those gubernatorial footsteps come up here and put the gubernatorial hand on the bible and say: “I didn’t have that conversation with Bridget Kelly.”
But at the end of the day, the jury found it didn’t believe Kelly nor Baroni when they protested their innocence. Kelly was a compelling, direct witness, but her testimony clashed with that of seven other witnesses at trial. Kelly explained they had a motive to lie — their “livelihood depended on Christie,”and in summations Critchley put up a chart showing how all seven did indeed depend on Christie.
Yet the weight of the documents seemed overwhelming. There was the damning email where Kelly, hearing that schoolchildren were stuck in traffic, texted Wildstein: “is it wrong that I am smiling?” Baroni and Wildstein called Sokolich “Serbia,” though he is Croatian. The two seemed to chortle over Sokolich’s repeated attempts to get calls returned.
More damning for Baroni was evidence of his attempts to cover-up the scheme: his rushing in to tell Pat Foye, the New York official who reversed the lane closures, that the closures “were important to Trenton,” and that if Foye didn’t close the lanes again then “Trenton would call Albany.”
Baroni later appeared before the legislature, arguing speciously that the lane closures had been a matter of fairness. An assemblywoman erupted at the time: “No one in this room believes that!”
Unfortunately for Baroni and Kelly, when they tried to testify in their own defense, that happened again.