Two former allies of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were found guilty today of conspiring to shut down the nation’s busiest bridge to punish a local mayor who refused to support the governor’s re-election bed, authorities said.
William E. Baroni Jr., the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Bridget Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, were both convicted of all the counts against them, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey posted on Twitter. They had been on trial since early October, facing allegations that they hatched a plan to tie up traffic on the George Washington Bridge to retaliate against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not supporting Christie’s reelection bid.
The trial was notable particularly for the steady stream of new allegations it produced about Christie’s knowledge of the scheme. On the very first day, prosecutors alleged Christie knew about the plan as it was happening, and a key witness would later testify to that assertion. Christie had, in the past, claimed that he had no knowledge of the plan before or during it and, that no one acted on his behalf. He reiterated those claims in a statement Friday, and said he was “saddened” by the choices those close to him made.
“Today’s verdict does not change this for me,” he said. “But let me be clear once again, I had no knowledge prior to or during these lane realignments, and had no role in authorizing them. No believable evidence was presented to contradict that fact. Anything said to the contrary over the past six weeks in court is simply untrue.”
Christie has been a forceful advocate of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who likely would have preferred the trial not produce such unflattering testimony about one of his strongest surrogates so close to the election. In the past, though, Trump had been critical of Christie over the matter, saying last December, during the Republican primaries in which the two were rivals, “He totally knew about it.”
Christie himself has not been charged in the case, and it seems unlikely he now would be, unless new evidence were to emerge to help bolster the assertions of witnesses.
Baroni and Kelly were charged with conspiring to misuse Port Authority property by fraud and conspiring to deprive people of their civil rights. The way federal prosecutors told it, the two Christie allies were seeking to punish Sokolich, a Democrat, for refusing to support Christie’s re-election bid. Working with David Wildstein, a former Port Authority executive, they orchestrated a shut down of the lanes and toll booths on the George Washington Bridge and tried to cover their tracks by claiming the closures were part of a traffic study.
Wildstein, who pleaded guilty, testified as a witness for prosecutors in the case, claiming he told Christie what was happening, and Christie laughed.
Baroni’s and Kelly’s attorneys argued that prosecutors stretched to allege a crime where none existed and that Baroni and Kelly were acting within their legitimate authority. Their attorneys did not immediately return emails seeking comment Friday.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Matt Zapotosky