Bridgegate reckoning – A day of indictments, but none implicate Gov. Christie
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Federal prosecutors brought charges Friday against three former allies of Gov. Chris Christie — but not Christie himself — in the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal, easing the legal threat that has hung over his 2016 White House ambitions for more than a year.
One of those charged, David Wildstein, a former high-ranking official at the transportation agency that operates the bridge, pleaded guilty, saying he and the other defendants engineered huge traffic jams to get even with a local politician.
Christie was not publicly implicated in any wrongdoing and appears to be in the clear for now.
"Based on the evidence currently available to us, we're not going to charge anyone else in this scheme," U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said at a news conference.
The Republican governor claimed vindication. “Today's charges make clear that what I've said from day one is true," he said in statement issued by his office Friday afternoon. "I had no knowledge or involvement in the planning or execution of this act."
Wildstein, a former high-ranking official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy charges, saying in court that he and two other Christie loyalists closed lanes and engineered huge traffic jams in September 2013 as political payback against a Democratic mayor.
He also said the three of them concocted a cover story: It was all part of a traffic study.
Wildstein, 53, could face about two years in prison at sentencing Aug. 6.
The two people he implicated in court - former Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni, who was the governor's top appointee at the Port Authority - were charged in an indictment unsealed Friday after Wildstein's plea.
Both issued strong denials of the charges in separate news conferences Friday afternoon.
Kelly emphatically denied any wrongdoing and said she will work relentlessly to clear her name. "I never ordered or conspired with David Wildstein to close or realign lanes of the bridge for any reason, much less for retribution," she said.
She also said that she texted and emailed things that she meant to be funny - but now sees that they were not.
Kelly and Baroni are due in court Monday on charges including conspiracy, fraud and deprivation of civil rights. The fraud charge alone carries up to 20 years in prison.
Wildstein said he, Baroni and Kelly orchestrated the scheme to punish the Democratic mayor of the town of Fort Lee, at the foot of the bridge, for not endorsing Christie's re-election bid. He said they also agreed to cover it up by claiming the lane closings were part of a traffic study.
Bill Baroni's attorney, Michael Baldasarre, said that Baroni will be fully exonerated and that Wildstein is a habitual liar.
The scandal broke wide open more than a year ago when an email from Kelly to Wildstein was revealed. It read, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." Wildstein's reply: "Got it." That exchange was key in the indictment.
Wildstein said they orchestrated the lane closings to start on the first day of school to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich and agreed to ignore his complaints about the resulting traffic jams.
Two of the three access lanes to the bridge in Fort Lee were shut down for four mornings in September 2013, causing huge delays.
By the time the incriminating emails were made public last year, Wildstein had resigned, as had Baroni. The governor soon after fired Kelly and cut ties with Bill Stepien, his two-time campaign manager.
Questions over whether the lanes were closed for political retribution have been dogging Christie for more than a year. Christie has been gearing up for a 2016 presidential campaign but has not announced he is running.
While Christie may be out of any immediate legal danger, politically it could be more complicated. The furor has already damaged his standing in the polls, and the charges put the scandal back in the news just as the presidential cycle is getting underway and candidates are jumping into the race.
Christie has long maintained that he knew nothing about the closures until he was confronted with media reports, and said he doesn't expect the facts to change from what he said during a marathon press conference last January. "I know what the truth is, so I'm not the least bit concerned about it," he said. Christie has launched a political action committee that allows him to pay for travel and a staff, but he has not formally declared himself a candidate for president.
Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at New Jersey's Montclair State University, said the charges are bad news for Christie.
"I would go so far as to say that this really signals a death knell to his presidential aspirations," she said. "You have key staffers who have been indicted, and one of the things that primary voters look to is: How would a prospective president manage their staff?"
But Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, said he does not expect a major effect: "People have already made up their minds as to whether they think it's a deal or not."
Patrick Foye, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the powerful agency that runs the bridge - one of the busiest in the world - ordered lanes reopened on what would have been the fifth morning of closures.
Lawmakers began holding hearings on the closures and Christie laughed off suggestions that his administration had anything to do with them after the mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, suggested that the lanes were blocked to get revenge against him, perhaps because he did not endorse Christie's re-election.
A law firm his office hired - and the state paid for - produced a report clearing Christie and his remaining staff of any wrongdoing. Democrats derided the report as a whitewash.
Some of Christie's critics have suggested that even if he had no direct role in it, his brusque - some say bullying - political style created a climate that led members of his administration to think they could get away with such tactics.
Asked about that Friday, Fishman said: "I won't comment on culture."
In December, a special legislative committee looking into the matter released its interim report. It did not link Christie to the lane closures, but said that Christie aides acted with "perceived impunity." The report noted, though, that several of the people it considered key witnesses either invoked their rights not to incriminate themselves and refused to answer questions or were put off-limits by federal criminal investigators.
State Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat who is co-chairman of a committee investigating the scandal, said that with Wildstein's guilty plea, "the people of New Jersey have more reason to be skeptical of Gov. Christie's leadership style built upon bullying and retaliation."
Christie and his supporters have denounced the legislative effort as politically motivated. Several members of Christie's staff testified before the lawmakers. They have not shared any bombshells that have offered proof that there was a broader plot to close the lanes or to cover up what happened.
Some lawmakers have seized on the fact that one staffer, Jennifer Egea, said she sent Christie a text message about earlier testimony before the committee but later deleted it. The lawmakers' report said there was a volley of texts between the aide and Christie. They said that Christie's failure to supply them indicates that he must have deleted them, too. The scandal also raised questions about how Christie's administration handled the rough and tumble world of New Jersey politics.
On Friday, Sokolich said the allegations that he was the target of a political retribution scheme were "a true punch in the gut."
"I didn't sign up for this," he said. "I signed up to open up Little League fields and lower taxes."