U.S. Indictment Details Plotting in New Jersey Bridge Scandal

The fine-grained intricacies laid out in the legal papers show the three plotting like petulant and juvenile pranksters, using government resources, time and personnel to punish a public official whose sole offense was failing to endorse their political patron. The three were in constant contact, brazenly using government emails, their tone sometimes almost giddy. They even gave the increasingly desperate mayor of Fort Lee their own version of the silent treatment.

The charges reveal the step-by-step, carefully coordinated attention paid by the three associates of the governor to create the perfect traffic jam, a veritable town-size parking lot, one that in the end may have stymied Mr. Christie’s presidential ambitions.

Mr. Baroni and Ms. Kelly have proclaimed their innocence, saying that Mr. Wildstein, who is cooperating with the authorities, fabricated stories about their actions to help his case.

The hinge of the plot Mr. Wildstein has outlined for the authorities was a uniquely New Jersey form of punishment: making suburban drivers sit in traffic.

The first mention of it came in March 2011, as Mr. Christie’s star among national Republicans was first rising.

Mr. Wildstein, then the chief of staff to Mr. Baroni, Mr. Christie’s top staff appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, mentioned to Mr. Baroni that they could use the local access lanes to the bridge from Fort Lee as leverage against the town’s mayor, Mark Sokolich.

Mr. Christie’s strategists were hoping to use his 2013 re-election campaign to build a case for him to run for president. Their goal was to secure endorsements from a broad spectrum of officials, including Democrats such as Mayor Sokolich.

This cultivating fell mostly to young staff members in the wing of Mr. Christie’s front office known as Intergovernmental Affairs. In August 2013, Ms. Kelly, the deputy chief of staff in that office, expressed disappointment to Mr. Wildstein that Mr. Sokolich, who had been the subject of intense wooing by her office and the authority, was not going to endorse Mr. Christie.

Ms. Kelly, like Mr. Baroni and Mr. Wildstein, was a loyal lieutenant, who joined the governor and members of his inner circle at events outside of work.

Mr. Wildstein mentioned the lanes as a source of leverage. Ms. Kelly called a young employee and instructed him to confirm that Mr. Sokolich had refrained from an endorsement, then emailed Mr. Wildstein: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

That was mid-August. In the coming days, she confirmed again that Mr. Sokolich would not endorse.

And she instructed her employees not to “interact” with him.

A week later Mr. Wildstein and Ms. Kelly joked in their text messages about punishing a rabbi who had also fallen into disfavor. “We cannot cause traffic problems in front of his house, can we?” Ms. Kelly wrote.

“Flights to Tel Aviv all mysteriously delayed,” Mr. Wildstein countered.

“Perfect,” she replied.

The three then made up a cover story: They would say that they were doing a traffic study so that unwitting Port Authority staff members would go along with the plan, making it appear to be legitimate. That would require some planning and the involvement of unwitting participants.

Mr. Wildstein had a traffic engineer prepare several configurations; Mr. Baroni and Ms. Kelly agreed that the one that funneled three access lanes into a single one would inflict the worst punishment on the mayor, by creating the most severe traffic backup on the streets of Fort Lee. They would steer that lane to a tollbooth that accepted cash as well as E-ZPass; there would be no access to the E-ZPass-only lane that offered a faster commute.

They were ready in August, but Mr. Baroni recommended waiting. After all, traffic tended to be lighter in summer; “the punitive impact would be lessened,” the indictment says. They bided their time. They agreed: They would do it the first day of school, Monday, Sept. 9, 2013, in order to “intensify Mayor Sokolich’s punishment.”

They agreed not to tell him, or any officials in Fort Lee, so that there would be no time to prepare. It would also, the indictment says, “keep Fort Lee residents and G.W.B. commuters from altering their routes.”

And though the three had agreed on the date, they also agreed not to share it with any Port Authority workers involved in the closings until the Friday before, to avoid any leaks.

They understood that closing down lanes to the world’s busiest bridge would not be uncomplicated, or inexpensive.

Mr. Wildstein brought in a backup toll collector who had to be paid overtime, in case the one on duty had to go the bathroom.

He had traffic engineers rush that Friday to collect data for a fake traffic study. The police would have to work through an extended rush hour.

It is this use, or misuse, of government resources that is at the heart of the case against the three.

They instructed employees at the governor’s office and the Port Authority to direct any complaints from Mr. Sokolich, or public safety officials in Fort Lee, to Mr. Baroni.

Mr. Baroni, the three agreed, would “deliberately ignore” them.

Mr. Wildstein visited the bridge himself the first day, reporting back that the plan was a success: Traffic in Fort Lee was a disaster.

Then came the mayor’s desperation. Mr. Baroni got an email saying Mr. Sokolich had called him regarding “an urgent matter of public safety.”

Mr. Wildstein instructed Mr. Baroni: “Radio silence.”

“Did he call him back?” Ms. Kelly texted Mr. Wildstein later.

“Radio silence” Mr. Wildstein replied, along with a joke about another mayor who had been punished with a round of canceled meetings with top Christie staff members after he, too had declined to endorse. Ms. Kelly thanked him.

Another call. Emergency workers stuck in the gridlock could not respond to calls. A missing toddler. An elderly woman in cardiac arrest (she later died.)

Radio silence. Ms. Kelly conferred with Mr. Baroni and Mr. Wildstein; the traffic jam was a success, and they would continue.

The mayor became more frantic, sending two text messages to Mr. Baroni the next morning. He used phrases like “total gridlock,” “a town ready to revolt,” “rather urgent” and “maddening.”

Mr. Baroni simply forwarded them to Mr. Wildstein, who shared them with Ms. Kelly.

“Is it wrong that I am smiling?” she texted back.

Two more emails to Mr. Baroni; the mayor was calling his office, it was a “life/safety issue.”

He ignored those, too, instead agreeing during a phone conversation with Ms. Kelly and Mr. Wildstein to keep going. They agreed again in a similar conference call the next day, Sept. 11, and again on Sept. 12, even after Mr. Sokolich begged him in an email marked “PERSONAL.”

In underlined text, Mr. Sokolich wrote, “Unquestionably, this decision has negatively impacted public safety here in Fort Lee.” Port Authority police, he said, were telling irate drivers the “debacle is the result of a decision that I, as the mayor, recently made.”

Again, Mr. Baroni simply forwarded the message to Mr. Wildstein, who shared it with Ms. Kelly. He did the same with a text message from the mayor later in the day. And when a Port Authority staff member asked Mr. Baroni if he should contact the mayor, Mr. Baroni instructed him not to.

By this time, the mayor was calling the governor’s office, and a reporter was calling the Port Authority.

Mr. Wildstein and Ms. Kelly conferred on an anodyne news release. In response to an email from one of her staff members outlining the mayor’s call about “horrendous” traffic, Ms. Kelly replied, “Good.”

The morning of Sept. 13 brought a surprise: The executive director of the Port Authority, appointed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, a Democrat, had heard about the lane closings and ordered them reversed.

Mr. Baroni was furious. He demanded that they be reinstated, saying it was important to “Trenton.” The executive director refused.

Radio silence continued. But in the coming days, Mr. Baroni and Mr. Wildstein themselves grew frantic, pressing Ms. Kelly on how they should respond.

In November, when Mr. Baroni was called to testify before a legislative inquiry into the lane closings, the three drafted a statement asserting that they had been part of a traffic study.

Mr. Baroni went further. “Given the amount of time I’ve spent building a relationship with Mark Sokolich,” he told legislators, the traffic debacle had been “hugely problematic personally.”

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