Two Christie Aides Indicted In Bridgegate Scandal While A Third Pleads Guilty

Two of Chris Christie's closest aides were indicted in connection with the Birdgegate scandal today, a third plead guilty, and Christie's Presidential ambitions are pretty much dead.

Christie GWB

Two people who were once close allies of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were indicted in Federal Court in Newark today, and a third plead guilty, in connection with the scandal surrounding the closing of several lanes of the George Washington Bridge less than two months prior to the 2013 New Jersey Gubernatorial Election:

After a 16-month federal investigation into the George Washington Bridge lane closings scandal, a judge in New Jersey on Friday unsealed indictments against two people close to Gov. Chris Christie, outlining a conspiracy to exact political vengeance against a mayor for his failure to endorse the governor’s re-election.

Breaking his long silence over the inquiry, the United States attorney for New Jersey, Paul J. Fishman, announced the indictments at a news conference on Friday afternoon. He said that the conspirators carried out the plan in a way to “callously” inflict maximum pain on the citizens of Fort Lee, purposely scheduling it to coincide with the first day of school. Then, he said, they sought to cover up the scheme with a “sham” story of a traffic study.

Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Bridget Anne Kelly, a former deputy chief of staff to Mr. Christie, were charged with nine counts of conspiracy to commit fraud, including “knowingly converting and intentionally misapplying property of an organization receiving federal benefits.”

David Wildstein, another former Port Authority official and a high school friend of Mr. Christie, pleaded guilty at the United States District Court in Newark to conspiracy to commit fraud and conspiracy against civil rights.

Mr. Fishman said that Mr. Wildstein corroborated the allegations in the indictment.

“Based on the evidence that is currently available to us, we’re not going to charge anyone else in this scheme,” Mr. Fishman said.

However, Mr. Wildstein’s lawyer, Alan Zegas, reiterated on Friday his client’s contention that “evidence exists” that Mr. Christie knew about the closings as they occurred.

“There is a lot more that will come out,” he said. “Unfortunately, I am not in a position to talk about the matter in detail.”

Mr. Christie did not appear to be implicated in the indictments, and has steadfastly denied any participation in the scheme. However, Mr. Baroni was quoted in the indictment as saying the lane closings were “important to Trenton.”

The indictment also details efforts to conceal the true reason for shutting the lanes.

“The conspirators concocted and promoted a sham story that reducing the number of lanes and tollbooths accessible to the local approach was for a traffic study,” according to the indictment.

The story was invented “to conceal the conspirators’ true punitive purpose.”

On Friday morning, Judge Susan D. Wigenton, who presided over the case, laid out the conspiracy involving the three Christie confidants. She asked Mr. Wildstein a laundry list of questions, all of which he answered with a soft “yes,” while standing at the defense table.

She asked if he conspired with Mr. Baroni and Ms. Kelly to shut down lanes to retaliate against Mayor Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee for not endorsing Mr. Christie in his 2013 re-election campaign.

“Did you agree with Mr. Baroni and Ms. Kelly to punish Mayor Sokolich by causing significant lane access problems,” the judge asked, staring down from the bench at Mr. Wildstein.

“Yes,” Mr. Wildstein answered.

Mr. Wildstein has been a central figure in the scandal ever since it emerged in that he had received an email from Ms. Kelly in August 2013 saying that it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

“Got it,” he replied.

His decision to plead guilty has been closely watched to see if he indicates what role – if any — Mr. Christie had in the lane closings, which gridlocked the town of Fort Lee over several days, stranding emergency vehicles, commuters and school buses on the bridge to Manhattan.

Earlier, Mr. Wildstein told several people in the Christie administration that he had discussed the lane closings with the governor as they were happening, an assertion the governor denies.

Mr. Zegas, speaking outside the courthouse after the hearing on Friday, said Mr. Wildstein “deeply regrets” what occurred. He said that Mr. Wildstein could not undo what has been done, but that he could “shed truth on what occurred during the course of that week, what led to the events, and what ensued thereafter.”

From the beginning, there has always been something about this story that never quite made sense, and the admissions by Wildstein in his plea agreement, along with the allegations set forth in the Kelly and Baroni indictments only reinforce that perception. By September 2013, and indeed well before that, it was already self-evident that Chris Christie was going to be re-elected and that he was going to win by an historic margin that included strong performances even among demographic groups that tend to vote Democratic groups. He had already received the endorsements of many prominent Democratic mayors and other Democratic political officials, it just happened that the Mayor of Fort Lee was one of the Democratic Mayors who declined to endorse him. On the whole, failing to get that endorsement was not a big deal and would not have any real impact on the race. So, it’s not clear why supposedly seasoned political aides like Kelly and Baroni would target him for retaliation to begin with. Even more odd is the manner in which they chose to retaliate. Closing down lanes on the bridge for several days, and specifically those lanes that were used by Fort Lee residents regularly, would certainly inconvenience people but it’s unclear exactly how that was supposed to punish the Mayor of Fort Lee. There’s almost a Keystone Kops quality to the entire scheme, really, because it’s really so amateurish that, at first, it was almost hard to believe that the lane closures had any political motive at all. In any case, that’s exactly what was going on. I’m sure Kelly, Baroni, and Wildstein had some logic going on in their head, but it sure seems bizarre in retrospect.

The biggest piece of news to come out of this, of course, is the fact that it does not appear that Governor Christie had any knowledge of the scheme prior to the time it was first brought to his attention. David Wildstein’s attorney disputes this claim and says that more details could come out, but the U.S. Attorney seemed to make clear in his press conference this afternoon that he was not looking at Governor Christie and doesn’t really seem interested in pursuing that avenue of inquiry any further. This is also consistent with previous reports indicating that his investigation had not uncovered any connection to Christie. Presumably, he already knows whatever it is that Wildstein’s attorney claims is yet to be revealed and he doesn’t consider it sufficient to pursue the Governor any further, or perhaps he investigated whatever else it is Wildstein has to say that isn’t set forth in the plea agreement and did not find it credible. Whatever the reason, it would appear that the investigation into the lane closures has come to an end and that the Governor is not in any legal trouble. No doubt, this may not please some of Christie’s political opponents but given the fact that we’re talking about a U.S. Attorney appointed by a Democratic President, it seems hard to believe that he would have avoided pursuing this avenue of inquiry if there were evidence to support it.

That doesn’t mean that everything is rosy for Chris Christie, though. Politically, these developments seem to be about as damaging news as possible other than the Governor himself being indicted. It has been expected for some time that there would be indictments in the Bridgegate scandal, of course, but the fact that two of Christie’s closest aides seems to put the death knell to the one thing about the Governor of New Jersey that made him unique among potential Presidential candidates. To a large degree, Christie’s national reputation was built up around a reputation of being someone willing to speak bluntly and take charge of problems. Many of his strongest criticisms of President Obama, for example, have centered around what he contends have been failures of the President’s leadership skills. Now he is faced with a situation where three people with whom he was closely linked concocted a scheme to retaliate against one of his political enemies, that they did it entirely without his knowledge, and that they apparently lied to his face when he asked them several months later if they had been involved in the lane closures at all. That’s hardly the kind of thing you want to see in someone who is pushing a message that centers around the ideas of leadership and speaking the truth. Combine that with the fact that Christie already had strikes against him due to the fact that he was perceived as being out of step with base of the Republican Party, and it’s hard to see how you run a credible campaign for President. As I said last month, Chris Christie may decide to run for President after all, but it’s hard to see how he puts together a campaign that is going to come anywhere close to the potential he seemed to have two or three years ago. Those years, it seems, were just an illusion after all.

Here is the Wildstein Plea Agreement:

David Wildstein Plea Agreement by Doug Mataconis

And, the indictment against Kelly and Baroni:

US v. Kelly & Baroni by Doug Mataconis

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2016, Crime, Law and the Courts, US Politics, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. MarkedMan says:

    There is no real mystery here as to why Christie and his people retaliated in this way: He’s an a**hole and he appoints people who are a**holes. Why did Dan Rostenkowski throw away decades of fighting his way into a top congressional spot to steal chump change in stamps? Because hat heart he was a thief and he couldn’t help himself from doing so. Why does the Vatican, yes even as high as the pope, continue (to this day) to promote bishops involved in covering up child molestation? Because they are steeped in the culture of molesters and most likely molesters themselves, or at least molester wannabes.

    Trying to figure out how Christie could have been so stupid is pointless. Anyone that has followed Christie can see that he is a bully that delights in punching a weaker kid while his snickering minions hold them down. The way he treated teachers or anyone else he deemed his inferiors was all you needed to know.

  2. C. Clavin says:

    Let’s see…Christie is a bully. And his three minions decided to bully a guy who wouldn’t endorse Christie.
    Hmmmm….

    Plausible deniability
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    Plausible deniability is the ability for persons (typically senior officials in a formal or informal chain of command) to deny knowledge of and responsibility for any damnable actions committed by others (usually subordinates in an organizational hierarchy) because of a lack of evidence that can confirm their participation, even if they were personally involved in or at least willfully ignorant of the actions.

  3. Moosebreath says:

    “From the beginning, there has always been something about this story that never quite made sense, and the admissions by Wildstein in his plea agreement, along with the allegations set forth in the Kelly and Baroni indictments only reinforce that perception. By September 2013, and indeed well before that, it was already self-evident that Chris Christie was going to be re-elected and that he was going to win by an historic margin that included strong performances even among demographic groups that tend to vote Democratic groups.”

    All of the above could be said about Watergate as well. Politicians tend ot think they are above the law.

  4. Facebones says:

    This story has lasted much longer than it should have for one reason. This is exactly the kind of petty bullshit and temper tantrum that you can expect from him.

    I see a lot of Guliani in Christie. Both are petty bullies that have an inexplicably high approval rating among DC pundits and have largely unearned reputations for crisis management. (I think the much bigger scandal is that there are still houses in ruins post-Sandy almost three years on.)

    And the bigger story, that the media has kind of glided over, is that the agency in charge of maintaining the busiest bridge and tunnel crossings and airports in the country is a completely corrupt haven for the govenor’s hacks and cronies. (And Cuomo’s as much to blame for this.) Seriously, it’s $14 to cross the GWB and neither NJ or NY governments seem to care.

  5. Pete S says:

    On the whole, failing to get that endorsement was not a big deal and would not have any real impact on the race. So, it’s not clear why supposedly seasoned political aides like Kelly and Baroni would target him for retaliation to begin with.

    I thought there was an alternate idea at the time – that the revenge was really about Christie having judicial appointment(s) blocked, and the Democratic state assembly rep who led that effort was from Fort Lee?

    No matter why it happened, Christie’s defense is that he hired incompetent bullies and then didn’t provide adequate oversight. I wish this was disqualifying in a Republican primary but it probably is not.

  6. Rafer Janders says:

    TIIIIIIIIIMMMMMBBBBEEEERRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!!

  7. C. Clavin says:

    Hey…did you guys hear about Obama invading Texas?

  8. C. Clavin says:

    @Rafer Janders:
    You yell timber when a tree falls.
    Probably for Christie you yell

    FWOMP

  9. gVOR08 says:

    @Pete S: I seem to also remember some story about a real estate development and Wildstein, I think. was part of a firm that wanted a piece of it. The developments claim to fame was “Only X Min to Manhattan” or something. The thought was that the bridge closing was by way of saying ‘be a shame if something happened to your nice travel time’.

    I have always felt that this revenge on the mayor thing was a cover story, and if they were willing to cop to that, what the H did they really do?

  10. jukeboxgrad says:

    Doug:

    they apparently lied to his face when he asked them several months later if they had been involved in the lane closures at all

    No, they didn’t lie to his face. He just says they did, and this claim is implausible.

    For months, Christie was an active participant in the coverup. He repeatedly promoted the ‘traffic study’ alibi, even though this alibi was always a joke.

    This is the heart of his alibi: ‘I thought all along it was just some kind of legitimate traffic study, and I had no reason to doubt that.’ Well, except that he did have reason to doubt that. It’s been known all along that local authorities, including police and emergency services, were given zero warning. The bridge manager taking orders from Christie’s crony was specifically “instructed not to speak to anyone in Fort Lee.” How is that remotely congruent with the concept of a legitimate traffic study? It’s not. You don’t need to be a traffic analyst to grasp this obvious fact.

    Christie was part of the coverup, which suggests he ordered the closure himself, and it’s roughly as bad as ordering the closure himself.

  11. sam says:

    To tell the truth, I don’t what to think about Christie’s involvement of lack of. I’m inclining to “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”

  12. cd6 says:

    A smart politician would look at the wasteland of his political fortunes, and walk away with some measure of dignity. Christie is not that man

    I look forward to watching his continued implosion, because he’s not done yet.

  13. C. Clavin says:

    It’s not like this is Christies only problem.
    His implementation of the Republucan economic agenda has Ben a failure…just as it has been in Wisconsin and Kansas.

  14. OzarkHillbilly says:

    The Joisey Whale is beached. Who knows if the Republican party can keep his political persona alive long enough for a returning tide to refloat his presidential aspirations.

  15. Barry says:

    @MarkedMan: “There is no real mystery here as to why Christie and his people retaliated in this way: He’s an a**hole and he appoints people who are a**holes.”

    This. He’s got that Nixonian level of a**holery, where even if he’s winning, he’ll still cheat.

  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @MarkedMan:

    Why does the Vatican, yes even as high as the pope, continue (to this day) to promote bishops involved in covering up child molestation? Because they are steeped in the culture of molesters and most likely molesters themselves, or at least molester wannabes.

    OK, anti-Catholic here, one who hates the church with a burning passion, and I gotta call BULL SH!T on this crap here. It is NOT a culture of molesters, it IS a culture of sexual repression. Every single priest and nun is forced to repress their natural sexual urges, both hetero and homo, feel guilty about them, and then when they surface….

    Of course they are all at least a little off and way too many are way off, but that is to be expected in such a culture. Add to this the fact that many joined the Priesthood (and Sisterhood) for the express purpose of repressing their sexual urges and the result is not surprising.

  17. Barry says:

    @Facebones: “I see a lot of Guliani in Christie. Both are petty bullies that have an inexplicably high approval rating among DC pundits and have largely unearned reputations for crisis management. (I think the much bigger scandal is that there are still houses in ruins post-Sandy almost three years on.)”

    I think that the common element is that both of them were prosecutors. They were accustomed to f*cking people over with massive resources (not the really big boys, of course), and likely they traded leniency for political favors. If a target were not guilty, they could still destroy them.

    More and more I see the massive power of prosecutors as a major factor in current US political corruption.

  18. dmichael says:

    @cd6: Did you mean to say “wasteland” or “waistband?”

  19. Tillman says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: One Martin Luther was happy to brag about getting out of, what with marrying a former nun and writing extensively on the joys of “marital bliss.”

  20. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Tillman: The whole reason for celibacy within the church is bull anyway. It came about to keep Cardinals from passing their wealth down to their children instead of to the church. For centuries after marriage was banned they were still having just as many children, just outside of the sacrament of marriage.

  21. An Interested Party says:

    …it IS a culture of sexual repression.

    Indeed…anyone within the Catholic Church who would be tempted to call homosexuality unnatural (or any other negative description) should first look at the unhealthy restrictions placed on priests and nuns…

  22. Kylopod says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    It is NOT a culture of molesters, it IS a culture of sexual repression. Every single priest and nun is forced to repress their natural sexual urges, both hetero and homo, feel guilty about them, and then when they surface….

    Ok, I know I’m aiding and abetting some serious thread-jacking here, but this is an issue I feel passionate about….

    I have to question the “sexual repression” theory about Catholic abuse, largely because of my own experiences observing similar scandals in the Jewish community. Unlike Catholic priests and nuns, the clergy in Judaism do not practice abstinence; they’re actually encouraged to marry and have children. Yet in the past two decades or so, a significant amount of child sex-abuse cases involving rabbis (mostly but not entirely Orthodox) have come to light. One of them was the former principal of a yeshiva I attended as a kid. He retired two years before I enrolled, and my brother was there for one year while he was there; I personally know one of the victims who is the same age as my brother.

    If these problems aren’t as widespread as in Catholicism (and I’m still not quite sure that’s the case), my guess is it has to do with the fact that Judaism is not only a much smaller religion, but also much more decentralized; there isn’t anything really equivalent to “the Church” among Jews. The problem the Catholic Church faces is that it’s such a damn huge and powerful organization, with this huge hierarchy with the Pope at the top who’s deemed infallible and can never be fired. It’s a recipe for abuse, when it occurs, to be shoved under the table.

    In any case, I think the problem of abuse by clergy (and teachers, and babysitters, and camp counselors) isn’t so much that any of these occupations cause people to become molesters, but that molesters are attracted to seek out these positions because it gives them access to children and a modicum of trust to watch over them. It proliferates among groups where there is a general distrust of secular authorities, and the ability of the molesters to get away with their crimes encourages other molesters to enter the pack, further increasing the incidence of abuse.