Friday, November 4, 2016

Appeals could keep Bridgegate pair out of prison for 2 years

Bridgegate defendants Bridget Anne Kelly, left, and Bill Baroni, both former allies of Governor Christie, were found guilty on all counts today (Credit: Thomas Bryan/Getty Images).

Editor's note: This post has been revised and greatly expanded.


We're nowhere near having heard the last about Bridget Anne Kelly, Bill Baroni, Governor Christie and the infamous George Washington Bridge lane closures in 2013.

After a federal jury in Newark found Kelly and Baroni guilty of all charges this morning, sentencing was set for Feb. 21.

Appeals of the verdicts and sentences are certainties.

That means Christie's former deputy chief of staff, as well as his top executive appointee at the Port Authority, owner and operator of the bridge, may be able to stay out of prison for up to 2 years.

So, David Wildstein, who pleaded guilty and became the government's star witness against Kelly and Baroni, likely will be going to prison before them.

Damning email

Kelly, a divorced mother of four, testified in her own defense, but was never able to explain away the email she sent to Wildstein about a month before he put the lane closures into motion on Sept. 9, 2013, causing five mornings of gridlock:

"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."

"Got it," replied Wildstein, who was Baroni's deputy at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a notorious patronage mill for the governors of the two states.

What everyone referred to as a "traffic study" was actually a bizarre scheme designed to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, for refusing to endorse Christie's re-election in November 2013.

The defendants were each charged with seven counts of conspiracy and wire fraud, including misusing the resources of the bi-state transportation agency and violating the rights of the citizens of Fort Lee to travel without restriction.

The most serious charge is punishable by a prison sentence of up to 20 years.

Christie's role

Kelly and other witnesses testified that Christie knew about the lane closures as they were happening, despite his repeated denials.

Wildstein testified that his every official action at the Port Authority was designed to please only "one constituent" -- Christie.

Wildstein also said he told the governor about the scheme at a Sept. 11, 2013, memorial service. Kelly said she received the governor's approval before she sent the "Time for some traffic problems" email.


The governor was never charged and wasn't called to testify under oath, although he was found guilty in the court of public opinion years ago.

And federal prosecutors never revealed the list of unindicted co-conspirators in the case.

"The lane-closing scandal was the biggest political corruption case in New Jersey in years, riveting a state that has a long history of official malfeasance," The New York Times is reporting.

"It crippled ... Christie's presidential candidacy this year and left him deeply unpopular among his constituents.

In the six-week trial in Newark federal court, "the prosecution and defense both portrayed the Christie administration as a relentlessly political operation in the service of a fiery-tempered and ambitious governor," according to The Times.

"Aides began using government resources to seek political endorsements" in 2010, the year the GOP bully took office, "with an eye to winning not just a broad re-election victory, but also the presidential race six years away."

Today's paper

The guilty verdicts were returned before noon today by federal jurors, who like so many of their predecessors didn't want to come back on Saturday to deliberate.

They started going over the evidence and the judge's instructions on the law that governed the charges on Monday.

The Record's front-page story on the trial today focuses not on the possibility of a verdict, but on Thursday's mistrial motions by hysterical attorneys who saw their defense cases sinking.

U.S. District Court Judge Susan D. Wigenton had ruled the jury could find the defendants guilty of conspiracy even if prosecutors didn't prove the motive was to punish Fort Lee's mayor.

Novice reporters

Sadly, the Gannett-owned Woodland Park daily put coverage of one of the biggest trials in decades in the hands Dustin Racioppi and Paul Berger, reporters who had little, if any, experience covering federal criminal cases.

That resulted in an unusually heavy focus on the two defense teams -- headed by Michael Critchley and Michael Baldassare -- which likely have bankrupted the defendants with their endless motions and delaying tactics.

Now, after the pair are sentenced, those same lawyers will be demanding even more money to bankroll appeals and keep Kelly and Baroni out of prison for as long as possible. 

Meanwhile, readers are questioning why Columnist Mike Kelly wrote such a long, flattering profile about Bridget Kelly during the trial, emphasizing her roots in Ramsey, her Catholicism and her four children.

The Record didn't give Baroni anywhere near the same sympathetic treatment.

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