2 Ex-Christie Allies Are Convicted in George Washington Bridge Case

NEWARK — A federal jury convicted two former allies of Gov. Chris Christie on Friday of all charges stemming from a bizarre scheme to close access lanes at the George Washington Bridge to punish a New Jersey mayor who declined to endorse the governor’s re-election.

Though only the two defendants, Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni, were tried in the so-called Bridgegate case, the scandal surrounding the lane closings in September 2013 left Mr. Christie deeply wounded. It helped cripple his presidential candidacy this year and tarnished his reputation as a key surrogate in Donald J. Trump’s Republican presidential campaign.

With the trial set to unfold in the weeks before Election Day, aides to Mr. Trump persuaded him not to pick Mr. Christie as his vice-presidential nominee. The governor now leads Mr. Trump’s transition team, but the Trump campaign said after the verdict on Friday that Mr. Christie had “changed his schedule” and would not make appearances in New Hampshire on Saturday.

Testimony at the trial indicated that Mr. Christie knew about the lane closings as they were causing major traffic jams in Fort Lee, N.J., over five days, and that he was deeply involved in covering up the plot even as he continued to insist — as he did again after the verdict was announced — that he knew nothing about it until months after it was over.

Throughout the seven-week trial, it often seemed as if both the government and the defense were prosecuting Mr. Christie in absentia. Witnesses laid bare a relentlessly political operation in the governor’s office and portrayed him as a fiery-tempered leader who gave orders to freeze out enemies and once threw a water bottle at Ms. Kelly, who was a deputy chief of staff to Mr. Christie, during a meeting.

Mr. Christie’s aides began to use government resources to secure political endorsements in 2010, the year he entered office, with an eye toward winning not just a broad re-election victory, but also a presidential race six years away. The governor’s loyalists preyed on grief over the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and misused hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars from what they called “a goody bag” to get support from Democrats as Mr. Christie, a Republican, tried to build a case that he had the wide appeal needed to win the White House.

The federal investigation into the lane closings has led to guilty pleas by two other confidants of Mr. Christie.

David Wildstein, who was installed as the governor’s enforcer at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge, pleaded guilty to orchestrating the lane closings and became the prosecution’s chief witness. David Samson, a former New Jersey attorney general whom Mr. Christie appointed as chairman of the authority, pleaded guilty to using his power to get United Airlines to create a special flight to an airport near a home he had in South Carolina.

The repeated mention of Mr. Christie’s name in the courtroom raised questions about why he had not been charged. Mr. Wildstein testified that he had told the governor about the scheme at a Sept. 11 memorial service, as the lane closings were taking place.

Ms. Kelly testified that she discussed the shutdown with the governor before and while it was happening. And the governor’s chief political strategist acknowledged on the stand that Mr. Christie had lied at a December 2013 news conference when he said that senior members of his staff and his campaign chief had assured him they were not involved.

Facing about 50 reporters and television cameras outside the federal courthouse here on Friday, the United States attorney for New Jersey, Paul J. Fishman, said that his office brought charges against only the people it believed a jury would find guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. There was substantial documentary evidence, he said, to corroborate Mr. Wildstein’s testimony about Ms. Kelly and Mr. Baroni, once Mr. Christie’s top staff appointee at the Port Authority.

“We don’t say we have sort of enough, let’s throw it against the wall and see what the jury does,” Mr. Fishman said. “That’s not our job.”

Mr. Christie issued a statement shortly after the verdicts were delivered, again denying any role in the lane closings. “Let me be clear once again,” he said. “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.”

Mr. Fishman, who succeeded Mr. Christie as the United States attorney for New Jersey, declined to specifically address the governor’s comments but pointedly expressed confidence in Mr. Wildstein’s testimony that the governor had been told about the plot.

“When we put witnesses on the stand, we put witnesses on the stand who are corroborated by other evidence,” he said. “And we don’t ask people to testify about things when we think they might not be true.”

The jury deliberated for three and a half days before delivering a note shortly before 11 a.m. on Friday indicating it had reached its decision.

The deliberations appeared to have been emotional. As the jury foreman read the verdict, one juror in front of him covered her eyes with her hand. The jurors remained silent and solemn as a team of court officers escorted them to their cars.

“It wasn’t an easy task,” one juror, Virginia Huffman, said later by telephone. “It’s never easy to find anyone guilty of something. You’re making decisions that have a huge impact on people’s lives.”

Mr. Baroni, a former state senator, was stoic as the verdict was delivered, then turned and hugged his father and stepmother, who had attended each day of the trial. Outside the courthouse, Mr. Baroni gave a brief statement, beginning, “I am innocent of these charges,” and vowing to appeal.

Ms. Kelly quivered and then began to cry as the jury foreman repeated “guilty” 14 times. Mr. Baroni’s lawyer, Michael Baldassare, hugged her parents and her aunt in the front row and said, “It’s not over.” About a dozen of Ms. Kelly’s friends had sat through the trial faithfully; outside the courtroom, some of them also cried.

Ms. Kelly’s lawyer, Michael Critchley, repeatedly portrayed his client as a single mother of four. As he left the courtroom, Mr. Critchley said that her “first concern is the effect it’s going to have on her children.”

Outside the courthouse, he put his arm around Ms. Kelly and said he would “absolutely” appeal.

“I told Bridget this is the first step in the process,” he added, as she stood by quietly. “I assure you, we will have another news conference. It may take a year or two, but it will be a very different news conference.”

The convictions carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, but under federal guidelines, Ms. Kelly and Mr. Baroni are likely to get far less time.

Mr. Fishman said on Friday that he expected his office to recommend that Mr. Wildstein be sentenced to 20 to 27 months in prison, and slightly more for Mr. Baroni and Ms. Kelly, because they did not accept responsibility for their crimes and because prosecutors believe that they did not testify truthfully.

Judge Susan D. Wigenton set sentencing for Feb. 21.

The controversy over the lane closings is the biggest political corruption case in New Jersey in years, riveting a state with a long history of official malfeasance.

Ms. Kelly sent the email that prosecutors said had set off the scheme and, when it was made public by a legislative subpoena in 2014, the ensuing scandal: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

For his part, Mr. Baroni ignored increasingly agitated phone, text and email messages from Mayor Mark J. Sokolich of Fort Lee — whose decision not to endorse Mr. Christie preceded the lane closings — about “an urgent matter of public safety,” with emergency vehicles, school buses and commuters stuck in traffic.

On the witness stand, the defendants said they had been duped by Mr. Wildstein, a self-confessed liar and political trickster, into believing that the closings were part of legitimate traffic study.

Both Ms. Kelly and Mr. Baroni were charged with seven counts of conspiracy and wire fraud, including misusing Port Authority resources and violating the rights of Fort Lee citizens to travel without government restriction.

The jury had asked during deliberations whether a guilty verdict required a finding that the two defendants had intended to punish Mr. Sokolich. Judge Wigenton said no, raising sharp protests from defense lawyers who argued that the issue of punishment had been included in the indictment and should be required for a guilty verdict. That issue is likely to form the heart of any appeal.

“The United States attorney’s office should be ashamed of this,” Mr. Baldassare, Mr. Baroni’s lawyer, said. “They said my client pursued a punitive objective against Mayor Sokolich. When it came time to put up at trial, they shut up. They said punishment doesn’t matter.”

Mr. Fishman said that the issue had been litigated at least four times before the judge, and that he had confidence the verdict would stand on appeal. He called the case “sad, honestly.”

“It lends credence to the cynical notion that people have that people in government can’t and shouldn’t be trusted,” he said.

“There will be corruption because human nature is what human nature is,” he added. “I do believe that verdicts like this, prosecutions like this, investigations like this send a message to people that we don’t tolerate it, that it’s not right, and that if you do it and we find out about it, we will go after you as hard as we can.”


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