NJTV News EXCLUSIVE: Bridget Anne Kelly on Bridgegate and the Eight Words that Changed Her Life

Joanna Gagis, NJTV News | January 30, 2020 | Politics
A key player in the Bridgegate scandal, former Gov. Chris Christie’s deputy chief of staff discusses the case, her former boss and Trenton’s toxic culture

Gagis: The Bridgegate scandal rocked New Jersey and Gov. Christie’s presidential campaign at the time you were his deputy chief of staff. Six years later, you and Bill Baroni face jail time on charges of conspiracy and fraud. Why do those charges not hold merit?

Kelly: Because they’re, first of all it was prosecutorial… Thank you for having me, first of all. You know, it really came down to prosecutorial overreach. I wish that it was about what Chris Christie knew and when he knew it. We tried to prove that in court and it came down to, really, the prosecution’s charges as opposed to what he knew and when he knew it. There is no question that Governor Christie knew what was going on at the time. He’ll deny it to this day. Seven people testified in court that he knew, so the charges were, really it was something that they kind of made up, the prosecution, and that’s why we were in front of the Supreme Court two weeks ago.

Gagis: Your legal team has argued that it was ill-advised, and maybe petty, but that it was not criminal.

Kelly: Correct.

Gagis: Explain that.

Kelly: In terms of what I knew and when I knew it, I did not know it to be criminal. I did not know it to be done with malice. From my understanding it was a traffic study. So, others knew, I’m sure, what was going on and that there was some sort of ulterior motive or ulterior plan to punish the mayor of Fort Lee. But as far as I knew, we had a decent relationship with Mayor Sokolich and there was no reason to punish him. And the study, in and of itself, made so much sense to me that it didn’t seem that there would be malice attached to it.

Gagis: So you did not believe in any way that there was something punitive here, that there was anything other than a traffic study?

Kelly: I would tell you, Joanna, up until September 11th, I had a conversation with the governor, which was day two, I think, or day three of the traffic study and it was a very strange conversation. And, you know, but you didn’t want to ask any questions. And then by Friday I knew something was up, and anytime I asked I was told that it was the Port Authority’s problem, it was David Wildstein is handling it. My direct boss was Kevin O’Dowd, who was the governor’s chief of staff, I talked to him about it. I talked to the governor about it, just that September 11th day, and nobody seemed that concerned. And then when the email came out, which they all knew it was going to come out, the blame shifted, and everybody had a little bit of amnesia.

Gagis: At that time, under that administration, with the persona that Governor Christie had of being the bully, had you known what this was, given your position and your close relationship with the governor at that time, would you have participated in this?

Kelly: I don’t know if “participated” would be the word. I think that … I was so fooled into thinking he and the people around him were people they weren’t. I was a career state government employee. I worked in the state government for 20 years, which includes my four years with Governor Christie. So for me, I like the way government worked. I wasn’t a politician; I certainly wasn’t a political animal. He had a lot of people around him that either worked in the U.S. Attorney’s Office or were political people. So, you trust the people you work with. Would I have participated in something like this? No, but it was clearly above my paygrade, and I don’t mean that literally, but in terms of the circle of who knew what, definitely it was, but I’m the one that’s facing jail time.

Gagis: You mention the email that you sent, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” that ended up being the smoking gun in the case. Now, when you look back on you sending that email at that time, what do you think?

Kelly: I think I should have used different words. I should have picked up the phone. I should have not trusted the person to whom it was being sent to. There was so much before that email that the words are horrible. The words clearly, seven words or eight words, have gotten me into this place in my life where we’ve lost everything.

Gagis: What did you mean in that email?

Kelly: David and I had spoken and he had told me about the traffic study, going back as far as June of now 2013. And at the end of the traffic study there was going to be this event whereby the results of the traffic study — because they were practically guaranteed that the main lines going onto the George Washington Bridge were going to move faster. So, David’s idea was, however we could tout the governor in an election year and use the resources by which we have at our disposal, which is the Port Authority, any department, you know, all these actions. Anything an elected official does while they’re in office benefits their reelection. It might not be outright, but this made sense. We’re going to move people faster across the bridge. So, David wanted to do an event at the end of it, and it all made sense. So, my joking, I should have said time for a traffic study and I wouldn’t know you and I wouldn’t know the people in the jury, and I would have done things differently.

Gagis: Do you regret it?

Kelly: I regret trusting people.

Gagis: Who should be in your position right now? Who should be facing jail time?

Kelly: You know, I don’t want to speak to that. There are a lot of people that I struggle thinking put their head on the pillow at night knowing that they should be in a different situation. It’s hard for me to, you know, last night the president was down in South Jersey, and a lot of names were read off and a lot of people were talked about, and a lot of people were there that probably … are questionable in this. And so, for me, a lot of people just allowed this and allowed me to take the blame for what they knew and what they were responsible for.

Gagis: But you won’t sit here and say Chris Christie, David Wildstein.

Kelly: Well, listen. David did what he did. David went down and cut a deal with the prosecution. I could have done the same thing, but I would have been lying. So, what does that teach my children and how do I live my life knowing I lied to the government just to take the easy way out? I think the governor should have taken accountability for it. I think that that’s what a real boss would do and a real man would do, but not only that, somebody who is responsible.

Gagis: He said he had no idea, as you mentioned. Speak to that. Would someone in your position have been able, under that administration, to make a call like that?

Kelly: Have that “power”? Absolutely not. Joanna, I used to “run” the box, if you will — invite people to the Prudential Center, right around the corner from here, or MetLife Stadium. The governor would let me know who he wanted in the box. He’d tell me who he wanted in the box; I’d have to extend the invitations. He’d also have to dictate to me what the menu would be. So, if that leads somebody to believe that I had the power to realign the lanes of the bridge by a seven-word email, something’s not right there.

Gagis: You’ve argued this case all the way to the Supreme Court. On January 14, the Supreme Court heard your case. What did you hear in that courtroom, in terms of the line of questioning, to give you an idea of how they perceive this case?

Kelly: It was a true honor to be there. I was almost awestruck, and then I remembered it was my life and this is incredible, that this is where we are. The governor was sitting, or the former governor and his wife, were sitting right in front of me in court. So, it was a little, not distracting, but it actually gave me much more confidence in what we were doing and that the reason why we’re at the Supreme Court was cause of how wrong this is. The questions, I think that the justices clearly did their homework. You can’t say that they didn’t know the issue, and they didn’t know the charges and they didn’t understand it. I mean, I was a little taken aback by how intricate and how much they did know, and that’s only because they didn’t sit in front of, or preside, over our case for seven weeks. It was interesting. They asked my attorney a lot of tough questions. He handled himself beautifully — and so educated and so smart. And they asked a lot of questions of the government. I mean, people that kind of handicap the Supreme Court — there’s people that go all the time and study this — they thought we did very well. But nothing has really worked out when I get my hopes up, so I’m going to just go with “it’s in their hands,” and I’m honored that they took it and I hope that they see it for what it is.

Gagis: If they rule against you, what’s next?

Kelly: Depending on what the ruling is. So, if they were, and I don’t even know if they can take away any of the seven charges — I was resentenced last year, April 24th of  2019 and I was sentenced to 13 months in prison. I was due to leave for prison on July 9th. We found out on June 28th that the United States Supreme Court was taking the case. So, we had made arrangements for the children, my ex-husband was moving back in; you know, my girlfriends had come over to help me pack up my stuff, it was being stored elsewhere. So if, God forbid, they do rule against me, I believe I will be facing prison.

Gagis: This has obviously taken a toll on your family. You’re a mother of four, single mom. What’s been the impact on you and your life in these six-and-a-half years of fighting this case?

Kelly: I think the hardest thing for me was that I probably trusted people too much, and trust is a part of every day in your life, whether somebody is coming in to do work in your home, whether you’re talking to somebody about your kids’ schoolwork, whatever, or parents, friends, relationships, trust is a hard thing. And I don’t know that I realized until, let’s say I’m meeting — my youngest is 13 — meeting new parents. You know, I’m kind of gun-shy because. And, again, it’s not because I worked with them in the Governor’s Office; it’s because I’m so scared of either being hurt or being led down a road that I get stuck in.

Gagis: There’s been a huge financial impact as well.

Kelly: Huge.

Gagis: You haven’t worked in six-and-a-half years?

Kelly: Correct. Correct.

Gagis: How do you move forward from here? What is next for you?

Kelly: It will depend if I’m going away. If I don’t go away, it’s time to rebuild my life, it’s time to rebuild the life for my kids. They’ve lost six-and-a-half years of their childhood, of their teen years. We joke — and it’s not that it’s that funny — but there’s life before Bridgegate, and then there will be life after Bridgegate. We’re still life during Bridgegate, but life before Bridgegate is hard to remember because of how consuming this is.

Gagis: And I just have to ask you, there’s been reports recently about this toxic culture for women in Trenton. Speak to that, what you experienced and where we go from here as a state.

Kelly: So, for me, I worked for a man, the former governor, who we all know he had a temper. He threw a water bottle at me on September 14th of 2013 down in Seaside Heights right after the fire. It was a Saturday and he had asked me to set up an event and he didn’t want to have it laid out or formatted the way it was and he proceeded to throw a water bottle — it skimmed my shoulder — and told me he wasn’t a expletive gameshow host. But for me I thought, that was OK, it’s fine, I love my job, I love what I do, we’re just going to throw this under the rug.

Gagis: Making excuses for bad behavior.

Kelly: Correct, exactly right. And this was before all the other stuff in New Jersey. And it was a year before Me Too kind of really took off. Fast forward, on January 8th my email was released. On January 9th the governor stood in front of press from all over, Joanna, for two-and-a-half hours and called me a liar 19 times, said I was emotional. On March 24th or March 26th, they released the Mastro Report — $11 million of taxpayer dollars to say that because somebody broke up with me I was emotional and I closed the lanes of the bridge. All this was a year before Me Too really sparked and all the stories were coming out nationwide. There’s a real story here, and there’s more to tell. My problem is, is that nobody was listening when I came out with it right after the Mastro Report. And that Mastro Report was a whitewash of the governor. It had nothing to do, first of all, to spend $11 million to talk about Bridget Kelly’s romantic breakup, no.

Gagis: June is when you find out whether the Supreme Court rules in your favor or not. We will be watching and we will connect with you, I’m sure, at that point. Bridget Anne Kelly, thank you so much.

Kelly: Thank you for having me.