In Bridgegate trial, Christie is the culprit who got away | Moran

on November 04, 2016

 

Bridget Anne Kelly fought back her tears as long as she could, her lips quivering and her face growing more and more red as the jury foreman pronounced a guilty verdict on each of the nine charges.

She made it to count three. And then the flood began.

It was tough to feel any sense of satisfaction from this. Yes, the system worked, and the rule of law has been vindicated. Both Kelly and Bill Baroni are now felons.

But the big guy got away.

Gov. Chris Christie was smart enough to hide his tracks, guided no doubt by his years as a federal prosecutor. He is the firefighter who knows the tricks well enough to get away with arson.

He deleted sensitive text messages he exchanged with a top aide at a pivotal moment in this conspiracy, and both now say they can't remember a single word of it. How convenient.

He surrounded himself with an inner circle that was more loyal than principled -- all of whom kept quiet for three years as they watched him lie to us.

They knew Christie was not "blindsided" by rogue staff, as he claimed in his famous mea culpa news conference of January 2014. Three of his closest aides admitted under oath that they had spoken to him about this caper much earlier.

So why was the governor not charged? Because knowledge of the plot, while ruinous to his political standing, is not a crime in itself. And because prosecutors had no emails or texts to hang him with, as they did with Baroni and Kelly.

So the governor will limp onward, damaged but free, never held to account.

That leaves a bad taste. It recalls the 11 common U.S. soldiers convicted of torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, while the general who ran the prison got off with a reprimand. Who would say that justice was done?

Defense attorney Michael Critchley spoke to this frustration in his closing argument, when he cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted the question on everyone's mind:

"Chris Christie: Where are you?"

For six weeks, the governor's ghost was the dominant figure in this courtroom, as nearly three dozen witnesses lifted the lid on this administration's barrel of stink.

Rank-and-file employees described using their time on the job to hustle for endorsements, offering prizes like chunks of steel from the rubble of the September 11 attacks, or tickets to a Giants game, or a Port Authority grant for a favorite cause. They needed a spreadsheet to keep track of it all.

Kelly described the governor as a monster behind closed doors, prone to tantrums filled with the worst obscenities. In one of his rages, she said, he threw a water bottle that hit her in the arm as she tried to jump out of the way. "I was scared," she told jurors, her voice cracking.

The governor used the Port Authority as a political slush fund, something to ponder each time you pay that damn $15 toll to cross the river.

He used a cut of toll money to finance a new park for his buddy Joe DiVincenzo, the Essex County executive; to buy land in Bayonne to help a friendly mayor, and to donate cash to a favorite charity of a senator in Hudson County.

He gave a high-paying job at the Port Authority to Jerry Speziale, the Democratic sheriff in Passaic County, on the condition that he would not use his $1 million in campaign funds against Republicans, according to testimony.

Even the small stuff was revealing: Christie once ordered Baroni to pass on an obscene threat, word for word, to a firefighters' union official he didn't like. When Baroni hesitating, saying the man was a friend, the governor threatened him.

"Do you like your job?" he asked. Baroni made the call.­­­­­

It's no surprise that Christie is a bully. But it is a surprise to learn that it's much worse than we had thought.

* * *

Turn to the two who were convicted, and you find no more satisfaction. Even at this lower level, the worst miscreant got away.

David Wildstein, the star witness, was also the star villain. He confessed to a career as a dark political operative, a lie and a cheat, a man without honor. Bridgegate was all his nutty idea. He pushed it relentlessly. He gave the orders to move the cones.

But he was smart enough to cut a deal, to throw his friends overboard, so he will almost certainly slither away as a free man.

They got Baroni, once a promising young senator many believed would be governor, a lawyer known for his vigilance on ethics, of all things. We learned during the trial that he was also an FBI informant from 2005 to 2010, mostly when Christie was U.S. Attorney.

Was it ambition that drove him so far off course, the dream of following Christie to the White House? Is sipping from that cup really this disorienting? I once knew Baroni well, and I am at a loss.

He is a felon now, his legal career replaced by legal bills. And he will be remembered always for the audacity of his lies when he testified before the Legislature about this "traffic study."

Kelly's case was different. Yes, she went along with this, passing messages between Wildstein and the governor's office. She seemed eager to be part of the inner circle, but was not invited to the parties or the weddings, or to the big meetings on policy and politics. If Baroni was a captain in Christie's army, she was a sergeant.

She was destroyed by her own words, the two most memorable emails of this scandal: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" and "Is it wrong that I'm smiling?"

Was she really that heartless, or was she trying to fit in by showing the same kind of frat-boy swagger that defined Christie's inner circle?

I don't know. My guess is that she is a decent person who was putting on a show, and lost her way.

After this verdict, the governor ignored all the damning testimony about his knowledge of this, about sick culture of his administration, about the misuse of taxpayer money for his political ends.

Will the Legislature drag him in now, put him under oath, and get to the truth? Until that happens, the bad taste left by this trial is bound to linger.

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