Two ex-aides to Christie guilty in 'Bridge­gate' trial

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Brid­get Kelly and Bill Ba­roni were con­victed Fri­day of all counts in the Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Bridge traf­fic jam case.

NE­WARK, N.J. >> Two for­mer aides to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were con­victed Fri­day of caus­ing traf­fic jams for po­lit­i­cal re­venge near the na­tion’s busiest bridge, a ver­dict that raised anew ques­tions about why the Repub­li­can gov­er­nor and his in­ner cir­cle es­caped pros­e­cu­tion.

Brid­get Kelly, Christie’s for­mer deputy chief of staff, and Bill Ba­roni, Christie’s ap­pointee to the Port Au­thor­ity of New York and New Jersey, were found guilty of all counts against them in the so­called “Bridge­gate” case. Kelly cried as the ver­dict was read; Ba­roni showed no emo­tion. Both de­fen­dants an­nounced plans to ap­peal.

Tes­ti­mony dur­ing the seven-week trial con­tra­dicted Christie’s state­ments about when he knew about the four days of grid­lock in the town of Fort Lee in Septem­ber 2013. The traf­fic jams were aimed at re­tal­i­at­ing against Demo­cratic Mayor Mark Sokolich for not en­dors­ing Christie’s re-elec­tion, pros­e­cu­tors al­leged.

Other tes­ti­mony de­scribed some of Christie’s top ad­vis­ers and con­fi­dants ei­ther know­ing about the plan ahead of time or soon af­ter­ward, and be­ing aware of the pur­ported po­lit­i­cal mo­ti­va­tion, well be­fore Christie told re­porters in De­cem­ber 2013 that none of his staff was in­volved.

Ba­roni’s at­tor­ney, Michael Bal­das­sare, called the case “a dis­grace” and said the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice should be “ashamed” of where it drew the line on who to charge.

“They should have had be­lief in their own case to charge pow­er­ful peo­ple and they did not,” Bal­das­sare said Fri­day.

Ba­roni and Kelly were in­dicted last year. Also charged was for­mer Port Au­thor­ity of­fi­cial David Wild­stein, who pleaded guilty and tes­ti­fied against them.

U.S. At­tor­ney Paul Fish­man de­clined to say Fri­day whether any of the tes­ti­mony could lead to charges against Christie or oth­ers.

“Any­body can reach what­ever con­clu­sions they want about the strength of the ev­i­dence and about whether the ev­i­dence of any­one else’s in­volve­ment was in the hands of the govern­ment or came from the de­fense,” he said. “In May 2015, the ev­i­dence that we had was suf­fi­cient to in­dict and con­vict Brid­get Kelly and Bill Ba­roni and that’s the in­dict­ment we asked the grand jury to re­turn.”

Christie said Fri­day that the ver­dict af­firmed his de­ci­sion to ter­mi­nate Ba­roni and Kelly and that the jury held them re­spon­si­ble “for their own con­duct.” He re­peated his as­ser­tions that he had no knowl­edge of the plot and said he would “set the record straight” soon about “the lies told by the me­dia and in the court­room.”

“I had no knowl­edge prior to or dur­ing these lane re­align­ments, and had no role in au­tho­riz­ing them,” Christie said. “No be­liev­able ev­i­dence was pre­sented to con­tra­dict that fact. Any­thing said to the con­trary over the past six weeks in court is sim­ply un­true.”

At the time the scan­dal un­folded three years ago, Christie was con­sid­ered a top GOP pres­i­den­tial con­tender and was on the verge of a run­away re-elec­tion vic­tory to demon­strate his cross­over ap­peal as a White House can­di­date.

Christie ul­ti­mately dropped out of the pres­i­den­tial race af­ter a poor show­ing in the New Hamp­shire pri­mary and said re­cently that the scan­dal prob­a­bly influenced Don­ald Trump’s de­ci­sion not to pick him as his run­ning mate. Christie is a now a top Trump ad­viser and has cam­paigned for him.

Christie was ex­pected to cam­paign for Trump in Penn­syl­va­nia and New Hamp­shire this week­end. A mes­sage left with the Trump cam­paign Fri­day wasn’t im­me­di­ately re­turned.

Wild­stein, a for­mer po­lit­i­cal blog­ger and high school class­mate of Christie’s, tes­ti­fied Christie was told about the traf­fic jam at a Sept. 11 memo­rial event in New York City, while the grid­lock in Fort Lee was in progress. He said Christie laughed and made a sar­cas­tic joke when he learned of Sokolich’s dis­tress over not get­ting his calls re­turned.

It was not clear from Wild­stein’s tes­ti­mony whether Christie knew then that the mess was man­u­fac­tured for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons; how­ever, Kelly tes­ti­fied she told Christie about Sokolich’s con­cerns about po­lit­i­cal re­tal­i­a­tion dur­ing the week of the traf­fic jams.

The fed­eral jury took five days to reach a ver­dict, con­vict­ing Ba­roni and Kelly of con­spir­acy, mis­ap­ply­ing the prop­erty of the Port Au­thor­ity, wire fraud and de­pri­va­tion of civil rights. The most se­ri­ous charges carry up to 20 years in prison, but Fish­man said the de­fen­dants likely would re­ceive far less time. Sen­tenc­ing was sched­uled for Feb. 21.

Wild­stein faces a max­i­mum of 15 years in prison, but un­der his plea agree­ment and fed­eral sen­tenc­ing guide­lines, he could re­ceive a sen­tence of 20 to 27 months. His sen­tenc­ing hasn’t yet been sched­uled.

Demo­cratic state Sen. Loretta Wein­berg, who helped lead a leg­isla­tive ef­fort to in­ves­ti­gate the lane clos­ings, said it was a ter­ri­ble day for New Jersey and “a ter­ri­ble day to have a spot­light on the kind of ad­min­is­tra­tion that was run.”

The de­fense por­trayed Wild­stein as a liar and a dirty trick­ster — “the Bernie Mad­off of New Jersey pol­i­tics” — and ar­gued that Christie and his in­ner cir­cle had thrown Kelly un­der the bus. Kelly and Ba­roni, both 44, tes­ti­fied that they be­lieved Wild­stein that the lane clos­ings were part of a le­git­i­mate traf­fic study.

“They want that mother of four to take the fall for them. Cow­ards. Cow­ards,” Kelly at­tor­ney Michael Critchley said in a thun­der­ing clos­ing ar­gu­ment.

One of the most damn­ing pieces of ev­i­dence was an email in which Kelly wrote: “Time for some traf­fic prob­lems in Fort Lee.” Then, as the grid­lock un­folded and Sokolich com­plained about chil­dren un­able to get to school, she texted: “Is it wrong that I am smil­ing?”

On the stand, Kelly ex­plained she was re­fer­ring to what she thought was a traf­fic study and ex­press­ing sat­is­fac­tion that it was go­ing well.

Trial tes­ti­mony re­in­forced Christie’s rep­u­ta­tion among his crit­ics as a bully, with ac­counts of pro­fane tirades, threats of bod­ily harm and tough-guy pos­tur­ing among the gov­er­nor and his in­ner cir­cle that seemed straight out of “The So­pra­nos.”

Ac­cord­ing to tes­ti­mony, Christie’s of­fice also used the Port Au­thor­ity to pun­ish or re­ward lo­cal politi­cians. Among the good­ies the agency dis­pensed were pieces of steel from the orig­i­nal World Trade Cen­ter, de­stroyed on 9/11.

“These con­vic­tions will be an es­sen­tial defin­ing fea­ture of Christie’s legacy in of­fice, and will for­ever taint how his ad­min­is­tra­tion is per­ceived and will be re­mem­bered,” Mont­clair State Univer­sity po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor Brigid Cal­la­han Har­ri­son said. “He is dam­aged by the nar­cis­sis­tic way in which he was por­trayed dur­ing the trial, a nar­ra­tive that was ac­cepted by the jury.”

PHO­TOS BY JULIO CORTEZ — AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Brid­get Anne Kelly, left, for­mer deputy chief of staff for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, is con­soled by her lawyer, Michael Critchley, on Fri­day af­ter be­ing con­victed on all counts in the Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Bridge traf­fic trial on Fri­day.

Bill Ba­roni, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s for­mer top ap­pointee at the Port Au­thor­ity of New York and New Jersey, talks to re­porters Fri­day af­ter he was found guilty on all counts in the Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Bridge traf­fic trial on Fri­day.

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