Prison time for two co-conspirators and former members of Gov. Chris Christie’s inner circle convicted in the scandal to close the lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee in 2013. It’s two years for Bill Baroni and 18 months for Bridget Anne Kelly in a case motivated by political retribution. NJTV News Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron was in court.
This was a day of reckoning for Bill Baroni and Bridget Kelly.
Convicted in November after a six-week trial, the two had conspired with a third man, David Wildstein, to close two access lanes to the bridge to get back at Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Gov. Christie’s re-election in 2013.
The sentencing guidelines called for 37 to 46 months in prison. The U.S. Attorney’s Office recommended a little less — 24 to 30 months.
Federal Judge Susan Wigenton sentenced Baroni to 24 months in prison, Kelly to 18 months.
Acting U.S. Attorney William Fitzpatrick said today’s sentences sent the necessary message.
“As Judge Wigenton said, this was a case about an abuse of power. When government officials serve their own self interest — whether politically, whether financially, at the expense of the people that they’re supposed to serve — that the government is going to be here to investigate and where appropriate, we’re going to prosecute,” he said.
Bridget Kelly’s attorney Michael Critchley said he’s appealing the entire case.
“We are now ending the first phase of these proceedings. The court has administered sentence. We respect the court’s decisions, however now we look forward to the appeal. And obviously once the appeal process is heard, I feel very, very confident that we will be vindicated and that this verdict will be set aside,” he said.
Kelly herself made a brief statement.
“Good afternoon. Today has been obviously a very difficult day for me and for my children, but I want to assure my kids and everyone else that this fight is far from over. I will not allow myself to be the scapegoat in this case and I look very much forward to the appeal. So, thank you,” she said.
Kelly and Baroni each spoke briefly in court and apologized.
Baroni’s attorney Carlos Ortiz: “I think all of you who were in court or in the other room heard Bill’s heartfelt statement to the judge today. That what he did was a mistake in not returning calls or emails to Mayor Sokolich. He apologized to him, the citizens of Fort Lee and everyone else he let down in this episode in his life. As you heard from our comments, we really wanted to highlight today for the court all of the really positive things that Bill has done in his life, in his career as described in the chorus of letters that the court has read and that folks submitted on his behalf. Other than this matter, Bill Baroni has served the citizens of New Jersey well. And as we mentioned, we believe is a model public official except for his role in this.”
Federal prosecutors were satisfied with the sentences.
“I think that there was a thorough and complete investigation. I think there was a trial that was fair. I think the defendants received outstanding representation. I think the jury did an oustanding job considering the evidence and applying the law. I think the court today did a fantastic job considering all the factors and imposing a sentence. I think that the system worked exactly the way the system was supposed to work,” Fitzpatrick said.
Baroni’s very first apology in court was to Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, who had this to say today: “It wasn’t just the three defendants — Wildstein, Kelly and Baroni. There were a lot of others that were allegedly involved, more than allegedly. I mean, I think that came out during the course of the trial. And yeah, it is frustrating that some of those folks, you know, not only avoided trial, avoided indictment, avoided this whole scenario. It would appear that many of them were rewarded. Welcome to New Jersey politics, I guess.”
So once again, 24 months for Bill Baroni, 18 months for Bridget Kelly, both released on bail pending appeal.
When asked if it was a fair sentence, Critchley said, “I’m the defense attorney. To me, I define fair a little differently,” he said.
The arguments in court were compelling.
Bridget Kelly is a single mother of four and her kids apparently have suffered. Bill Baroni has a lifetime of good deeds but will be remembered for this, Bridgegate. And yet a jury convicted both of them.
David Wildstein, who turned state’s evidence and admitted the whole scheme, will be sentenced at some later date.
Michael Hill: Also joining us in the Agnes Varis NJTV Studio is Assemblyman John Wisniewski. He co-chaired the Select Committee on Investigations probing Bridgegate. He uncovered the Bridget Kelly email — “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Also joining us, NJTV’s David Cruz. Assemblyman, thank you for joining us.
Wisniewski: Thanks for having me on.
Hill: Your reaction sir. What don’t we know in this case at this point?
Wisniewski: Well we know what Bridget Kelly is accused of and convicted of and Bill Baroni. What we don’t know is what the governor knew, when he knew it and who else in his administration is responsible. And what really stands out is the contrast between the testimony that was provided under oath in front of the Legislature and that same testimony was different under oath in front of the U.S. District Court. That discrepancy has to be explored. But there’s obvious issues about the withholding of documents by the governor that also needs to be looked at.
Aron: Don’t we need to get your committee rolling again and what’s blocking it?
Wisniewski: Well as an individual legislator, even though I’m a chair of a committee, we know how the legislative process works. It starts at the top with the legislative leadership. They would have to make a decision to do this. I’ve made that request on numerous occasions.
Aron: And it was reported this morning that Assembly Speaker[Vincent] Prieto is blocking that and I’m assuming that’s because of gubernatorial politics. You’re running for governor. He supports Phil Murphy for governor.
Wisniewski: Well I’m not sure what his reasons are. You’d have to ask him. But the reality is, Michael, when I started this investigation back in 2013, it was called political back then. So that’s a constant that has been underlying this investigation. Those who don’t want to get at the truth call it political.
Cruz: Assemblyman, you have Bridget Kelly here who is the supposed mastermind. But then you’ve got 10 other unindicted co-conspirators, you’ve got the governor, you’ve got two of his top PR guys, everybody walking away from this except the woman who is the supposed mastermind.
Wisniewski: Well, I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that she’s the mastermind. She is the person, along with Bill Baroni, who got caught. But as you correctly point out, there are 10 individuals who are unindicted co-conspirators, which means they bear some level of responsibility but the U.S. Attorney’s Office felt they didn’t have enough proof to make the prosecution stick.
Cruz: Is this something the Legislature can ask for with some more force?
Wisniewski: Well I certainly think that if there are public officials on that list, they ought to be disclosed as a matter of accountability to the public. But I also have to remind people that if it were not for the investigation the Legislature started uncovering the email saying, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” there might not have been a federal prosecution.
Cruz: To reiterate, you are calling for the speaker of the Assembly to re-ignite this committee, yes?
Wisniewski: I would like to see the speaker re-authorize the committee. Obviously the committee that existed was joint. It would be better as a joint committee, but it’s up to legislative leadership to make that call.
Aron: So that means the Senate president has to endorse it too?
Wisniewski: If it’s a joint committee, correct. If it’s a single house committee, it could be done just by the speaker.
Hill: Are you confident the people of New Jersey will learn all the facts about this?
Wisniewski: Not if we stop. I think there will be a lot of facts that will not be addressed starting with why did the governor withhold so many documents in [a move] calling for executive privilege. I mean, that’s something that should be very disturbing to many New Jerseyans.
Aron: Do you think that 24 months for Baroni and 18 months for Kelly is a fair sentence?
Wisniewski: I think it’s fair in the standard that was established in the Samson sentencing where he got basically rewarded for staying in his mansion in South Carolina for a year. That’s certainly not any type of punishment. At least in this case, the public knows that there are consequences to abusing the public trust.
Cruz: It strikes me after watching a few of these trials, you have this incredibly high-priced talent. And I don’t know that if Bridget Kelly or Bill Baroni had pleaded out, they couldn’t have gotten a better deal.
Wisniewski: Well that’s an interesting question. And only the defense attorneys probably know best as to what was offered them early on and what choices they could’ve made that were different. Clearly they’re seeking an appeal. They believe there was some judicial mistake made along the way. I don’t see it. I think that the verdicts will stick and the sentencing will stick, but we’ll have to wait and see how this plays out.
Aron: So the appeals won’t work?
Wisniewski: I don’t believe so.