Prison For Bridgegate Conspirators: 2 Years for Baroni, 18 Months for Kelly

Matt Katz, Andrea Bernstein | March 31, 2017 | Politics
Although both defendants apologize for their actions, judge notes that they showed little remorse during the trial itself

Credit: Port Authority of New York and New Jersey
Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni (left) and Gov. Chris Christie talk at World Trade Center site, September 11, 2013

More than three years after conspiring to close lanes to the George Washington Bridge to punish a mayor for not supporting Gov. Chris Christie, convicted Bridgegate conspirators Bill Baroni and Bridget Kelly finally expressed remorse in federal court Wednesday. 

“I was wrong and I am truly sorry,” Baroni told Judge Susan Wigenton. “And I’ve waited three years to say that. And over the last three years I have become a better person, a better son, a better advocate for others.”

Later, Kelly, through tears, addressed the judge: “I realize how disruptive the lanes closures were to the residents of Fort Lee. I am sorry if my actions in any way created any harm.”

But it was too late. Both are headed to prison, though they plan to appeal. Wigenton cited the defendants’ previous lack of empathy for those affected by their actions — and their efforts to cover it all up — in her sentencing. 

Wigenton sentenced Baroni, 45, to two years in prison, the minimum that prosecutors had requested, for his role leading the political revenge plot against the mayor of Fort Lee when he served as Christie’s appointed deputy executive director at the Port Authority. He was also ordered to complete 500 hours of community service and pay fines and restitution. Baroni was stoic as he stood to receive the sentence, and he was released pending an expected appeal.

Afterward, chatting with a reporter in the hallway, he flashed the same smile that carried him through a charmed political career and then an intense criminal trial that upended his life.

Kelly, whose “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email was described by prosecutors as the order that set the plot in motion, was sentenced to 18 months in prison. She had pleaded for probation, so she could stay home with her four children.

Testimony at trial showed that after Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich did not endorse Christie’s 2013 reelection, Baroni used his authority as the top New Jersey appointee at the Port Authority to close access lanes to the busiest bridge in the world. Seeking to help Christie, his friend and political patron, Baroni claimed the lanes were being closed for a traffic study. That triggered five mornings of gridlock that endangered public safety, with ambulance drivers abandoning their vehicles and running to the scenes of incidents.

Baroni and Kelly were convicted last November on seven criminal charges, including wire fraud, conspiracy and misusing the bridge for improper purposes. 

The government’s star witness, David Wildstein, testified that he and the co-defendants plotted to cause gridlock, and text messages and emails produced at trial showed Sokolich’s pleas were ignored by Kelly and Baroni. Wildstein will be sentenced at a later date and is expected to be given more leniency, due to his cooperation with the prosecution.

“The use of government power at a publicly owned bridge to create traffic in town just to mess with one person,” assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes told the judge Wednesday. “Those are the actions out of the playbook of some dictator of a banana republic. It’s incomprehensible such action could take place here in the United States.”

Wigenton specifically noted that Baroni misled a state legislative committee when he said the traffic study was legitimate, and later misled the jury at his trial with the same contention.

“It was completely intended to wreak havoc,” she said of the lane closures. “It only served a punitive purpose. You clearly knew, and know today, that it was not legitimate.”

She said that it was clear Baroni was swayed by the “one-constituency rule” — an official guideline used by Christie’s political allies to make government decisions that would benefit Christie over the public.

Cortes said that Baroni’s time as an assemblyman, state senator, lawyer, and law professor gave him the experience and judgment to conduct himself ethically.

“But when Bill Baroni was put to the test and made a choice, he chose to abuse his official power. And then he chose to lie about it,” Cortes said, calling Baroni’s conduct “brazen, calculated, and a mean-spirited abuse of power” that had “real-life consequences on the people he was supposed to serve.”

The scandal derailed Christie’s presidential aspirations and likely cost him a chance to be President Donald Trump’s running mate. While the sentencing was happening Wednesday, Christie was at the White House to launch a drug addiction task force. Earlier in the day, he was interviewed by three major morning news shows about Trump’s appointment on drug addiction. 

Questions remain over when, and how much, Christie knew about the plan to realign access lanes from Fort Lee to the bridge’s upper level. The bi-level bridge is considered the busiest in the country.

At the time of the traffic jams, Kelly was Christie’s deputy chief of staff and Baroni was his appointee to the Port Authority, overseeing Wildstein. Baroni testified that Wildstein was really his boss, acting as an omnipotent enforcer for Christie. 

Wildstein, a former political blogger and classmate of Christie’s, was hired as the director of interstate capital projects at the powerful Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge. The position was created for Wildstein, according to testimony.

Christie was not charged with any wrongdoing. But his version of events — that he was not aware that anyone in his office was involved until months after the fact — was contradicted by testimony from Baroni, Kelly, Wildstein, and others.

In addition to focusing on dozens of text messages and emails exchanged between the co-conspirators — including Kelly’s infamous “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email — testimony at the trial painted an unflattering portrait of the Christie administration’s modus operandi.

Christie was described as cursing and throwing a water bottle at Kelly over an apparently innocent question and another time leaving a profane and threatening voicemail for a county officeholder who had angered him.

Wildstein testified that Christie’s subordinates used the Port Authority, the bistate agency that oversees huge chunks of New York’s transportation and commerce infrastructure, as a source of political favors for Democratic politicians whose endorsements he sought.

“I do believe you got caught up in a culture, an environment, that lost its way,” Wigenton told Kelly.

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