Bridgegate: Where Are They Now?

Matt Katz, WNYC | March 29, 2017 | Politics
Yes, several face prison time, but others have landed comfortably in the Trump administration

Credit: Sarah Gonzalez/WNYC
George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee
Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni, two former appointees of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, face as many as four years in prison when they’re sentenced in federal court in Newark Wednesday morning for their roles in the Bridgegate scheme. But meanwhile, two other former Christie aides — who were in charge of securing the endorsement from the Fort Lee mayor that led to the scandal — are now in Washington, with top jobs in the Trump administration. More than three years after “time for some traffic problems,” here’s a look at where the Bridgegate figures are now. 

Bill Stepien: Between stints running Christie’s gubernatorial campaigns, Stepien oversaw the controversial Intergovernmental Affairs unit within the governor’s office. IGA staffers sought political endorsements on government time — including, fatefully enough, that of the mayor of Fort Lee, which triggered the whole retaliatory traffic jam. After Bridgegate, Christie cut ties with Stepien for what the governor described at the time as poor judgement. But although emails surfaced showing Stepien knew about the lane closures in advance, and knew they were retaliatory in nature, he personally didn’t order the closures, and was never charged.

So Stepien found career resurrection when Donald Trump hired him during the election. Stepien helped to lead field operations in Michigan and Wisconsin — the blue states that essentially enabled Trump to win the White House. Now, Stepien is Trump’s political director in the White House, akin to the role he used to play in New Jersey for Christie. A few weeks ago, for example, Stepien was on the phone with Republican political leaders around the country trying to whip votes for Trump’s healthcare proposal. He’s in a position to deliver favors and exact punishment, just like back in Trenton.

Matt Mowers: This Christie operative was actually the first person to try to woo the Fort Lee mayor for his endorsement. He also set up a grid, years before Christie’s re-election date, tracking goodies handed out to “Dem Targets,” as he called them, including pieces of burnt steel from the World Trade Center site and tickets to Giants and Jets games in the governor’s box.

Mowers is now at the State Department as senior adviser. He was standing next to Rex Tillerson when the secretary of state made his first speech to State staffers, and he has an office next to Tillerson’s. Mowers won Trump’s favor as a staffer during the campaign and is part of a so-called “beachhead team,” made up of these loyalists who are positioned at federal agencies to keep eyes and ears on cabinet members and other staffers. Mowers has become one of the most powerfully positioned people in American diplomatic policy, even though before this he had no experience beyond campaigns or New Jersey government. 

The Port Authority: The agency appears just as vulnerable to the dysfunction and corruption that comes with squabbling between its two masters, New York and New Jersey politicians, as it was before Bridgegate. Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo have failed to agree to an ethics reform package with lawmakers in each state that would allow the bistate agency to be managed by professionals, not political appointees, as outside experts have long recommended. The airports — John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark Liberty — are badly in need of improvements, as is the Port Authority Bus Terminal, even as bridge and tunnel tolls are the highest in the country.

Kevin O’Toole: The New Jersey Republican state senator and longtime Christie loyalist initially defended the lane closures as sound public policy. But even though documents would later show O’Toole participated in a plan to cover up the closures, the senator also served on the Legislature’s Bridgegate investigative committee, locking horns with Democrats who were pursuing Bridgegate subpoenas. Last month Christie nominated O’Toole to be a board member on the Port Authority; he is currently sailing through the confirmation process.

David Samson: Christie’s best friend was the chairman of the Port Authority ensnared in a separate corruption scandal in the wake of Bridgegate. Samson pleaded guilty to shaking down United Airlines for a special flight to his vacation home in South Carolina from Newark Liberty Airport, which Samson oversaw as the head of the Port Authority. Once attorney general for New Jersey, Samson was sentenced this month to four years of probation, including a year of home confinement at that very mansion in South Carolina that got him into trouble in the first place.

David Wildstein: The Port Authority official who conceived of the idea to shut the lanes to the George Washington Bridge ultimately turned state’s evidence and testified against his former boss, Baroni, and former friend, Kelly. While those two pleaded not guilty and went to trial, where they were convicted on all counts, Wildstein pleaded guilty and is expected to receive a lighter sentence for his cooperation. He will be sentenced at a later date.

Chris Christie: The governor was never charged with a crime, but Bridgegate decimated his political career. A Bergen County activist recently tried to file a criminal complaint against him but New Jersey prosecutors threw out the case. Now Christie is reportedly in line for a part-time job chairing an opioid task force for Trump — and he may one day get a bigger gig in the Trump administration. But in the meantime he has expressed interest in hosting the afternoon sports show on WFAN 660 AM when he gets out of office next January.

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