2 Christie Allies Are Sentenced in George Washington Bridge Scandal

NEWARK — Two former allies of Gov. Chris Christie were sentenced to prison on Wednesday for their role in closing access lanes to the George Washington Bridge as political payback against a New Jersey mayor, a key chapter in the plot that derailed Mr. Christie’s presidential aspirations and then dimmed his chances to become President Trump’s pick for vice president.

Bridget Anne Kelly, 44, who was a top aide to Mr. Christie, was sentenced to 18 months in prison, while Bill Baroni, 45, who served as deputy executive director at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was sentenced to two years in prison.

The scandal, which became known as Bridgegate, was as brazen as it was bizarre. In an effort to punish Mayor Mark J. Sokolich of Fort Lee, a Democrat, for not supporting Mr. Christie’s re-election bid and his desire to cultivate bipartisan support ahead of a presidential run, members of the governor’s administration schemed with Port Authority officials to trigger a massive traffic jam in Fort Lee. Over five days in September 2013, the gridlock ensnared emergency vehicles, school buses and commuters, even as Mr. Baroni ignored Mr. Sokolich’s messages seeking an explanation.

The plan was put into motion by Ms. Kelly’s now infamous email to David Wildstein, Mr. Baroni’s top deputy at the Port Authority, who pleaded guilty for his role in the scandal in 2015: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

The seven-week trial last fall of Mr. Baroni and Ms. Kelly revealed Mr. Christie’s aggressive political operation, which seemed as focused on carving a path to the White House as it was on the needs of New Jersey.

While Mr. Christie was never charged in the scandal, Judge Susan D. Wigenton alluded to the political culture his administration created on Wednesday as she handed down her sentences against Mr. Baroni and Ms. Kelly at the federal courthouse in Newark, calling it a toxic “with us or against us” mentality detrimental to New Jersey residents.

“What occurred in September of 2013 was an outrageous display of abuse of power,” Judge Wigenton said.

From the moment Ms. Kelly’s email became public, Mr. Christie’s then soaring political ambitions were dealt a blow from which he would never recover. From the daily news reports to the assembly hearings and investigations to the trial of Mr. Baroni and Ms. Kelly, the Bridgegate scandal became almost synonymous with Mr. Christie. As he sought the Republican presidential nomination himself, once a favorite and then a long-shot, the drumbeat of the scandal followed him from Iowa to New Hampshire.

As he attached himself and his political career to Mr. Trump, it was again the scandal that deadened his aspirations, this time as a potential running mate; the governor himself allowed that Bridgegate was “a factor” in Mr. Trump overlooking him for the ticket. And while Mr. Trump never gave a specific reason, Mr. Christie’s role as transition chief for the newly elected Trump administration was terminated a week after the convictions for Mr. Baroni and Ms. Kelly were handed down.

Before his sentencing, Mr. Baroni expressed remorse as he sought to avoid prison.

“I regret, more than anything, that I allowed myself to get caught up in this and fail to help those who need it,” Mr. Baroni, a former state senator, said. “It was my job to protect them and I failed. I let the people in Fort Lee down. They deserve someone in my position to have tried to stop this. But I didn’t stop this. No one else is responsible for my choice.”

During Ms. Kelly’s sentencing, her lawyer, Michael Critchley Sr., spoke at length, often emotionally, portraying Ms. Kelly as a selfless mother of four children whose family had been devastated by the scrutiny Ms. Kelly has been under since the scandal erupted.

Then Ms. Kelly, her voice shaking, dabbed her eyes as she rose to deliver a passionate plea for mercy and to apologize to her family.

“Your honor, the last three and a half years have been devastating emotionally, financially and mentally,” she said. “The damage my children have suffered has been irreparable and the time that we have lost as a family due to the extreme stress is gone forever.”

And she ended by saying, “I respectfully ask that you allow me the opportunity to reconnect with my children and rebuild our lives.”

Both Mr. Baroni and Ms. Kelly vowed to appeal their sentencing.

“I want to assure my kids and everyone else that this fight is far from over,” Ms. Kelly said outside the courthouse. “I will not allow myself to be the scapegoat in this case.”

Federal prosecutors, in arguing for jail sentences, said that Ms. Kelly and Mr. Baroni, who was Mr. Christie’s top staff appointment at the Port Authority, had abused their positions for personal gain and had failed the people they were supposed to serve.

Mr. Baroni, prosecutors said, also perjured himself during his trial, maintaining that the lane closings were part of a traffic study, when in fact it was motivated by politics.

“Those are the actions out of the playbook of some dictator of a banana republic,” Lee M. Cortes Jr., an assistant United States attorney, said in court on Wednesday. “It is incomprehensible that such actions could take place here, in the United States.”

Prosecutors argued that while Ms. Kelly may not have been as bold or duplicitous as Mr. Baroni, they painted her as the person responsible for orchestrating the plot.

“She ordered the operation,” Vikas Khanna, another assistant United States attorney, said in court. “Without her instructions, ‘time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,’ the lane reductions never would have taken place.”

The investigation into the lane coverings uncovered wrongdoing by another person who was part of Mr. Christie’s inner circle — David Samson, a former New Jersey attorney general and a longtime friend of the governor. He was charged separately and pleaded guilty to bribery for personal gain after an investigation showed that he had pressured United Airlines to resume a flight to South Carolina near where he has a home. Mr. Samson was sentenced this month to a year of home confinement.

The sentencing of Mr. Samson, who some say received a relatively light punishment, loomed over Wednesday’s proceedings, as lawyers for Ms. Kelly argued in memos filed on Monday that while Mr. Samson’s physical ailments justified not imprisoning him, “Bridget’s family circumstances are far more acute and equally justify a sentence of non-incarceration.”

The lane closings proved to be one of the biggest scandals in New Jersey history, a state that is familiar with official malfeasance.

For his part Mr. Christie was nowhere near the courtroom, nor even in New Jersey, on Wednesday. The governor went to Washington to meet with Mr. Trump for a round-table discussion on opioid addiction. Mr. Christie made several appearances on morning television to promote the effort, but demurred on commenting on what would transpire in court.

“The judge will do what the judge believes is appropriate, Matt,” Mr. Christie told Matt Lauer on NBC’s “Today” on Wednesday, as he stood in front of the White House. “And it’s not my role or anybody else’s role other than the judge in that courtroom to pass sentence on people who have committed crimes.”

Do you like this post?

Be the first to comment