Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, a former senior official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, faced seven counts each of conspiracy and wire fraud for their alleged roles in orchestrating lane closures on the George Washington Bridge in September 2013 meant to create mass gridlock in the town of Fort Lee.
Prosecutors and former Port Authority official David Wildstein, the admitted mastermind of the scheme, said the days-long traffic jam was meant to punish the town’s Democratic mayor for declining to back Christie’s re-election bid. Wildstein struck a plea deal for his own involvement in the plot.
Bergen Record reporter Paul Berger said that Baroni kept a smile on his face as the verdict was read, while Kelly broke into tears.
While the most serious charges in the indictment carry a maximum punishment of up to 20 years in prison, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said before the trial that there was “no way” his office would recommend that the defendants serve such a long term, according to the New York Times.
Baroni and Kelly are set to be sentenced on February 21, 2017.
Lawyers for both defendants told reporters outside the federal courthouse in Newark that they planned to appeal the verdict, which the jury reached after five days of deliberation.
Saying he was “surprised and disappointed” by the jury’s decision, Kelly’s attorney, Michael Critchley, called it “the first step in a process.” Holding a still-crying Kelly by the shoulder, Critchley claimed there were “errors in the instruction” the jury received and that there were a “number of grounds for appeal.”
Baroni’s lawyer, Michael Baldassare, said that the case “was and is a disgrace.”
“I am innocent of these charges and I am very very looking forward to my appeal,” Baroni told reporters in a short prepared statement.
The seven-week trial refocused New Jersey’s attention on a scandal that rocked the state for years and tainted Christie’s political reputation. Both the prosecution and defense agreed that Christie knew about the scheme as it unfolded, although the New Jersey governor has long maintained that he was unaware of the lane closures on the bridge until reading about them in the press “well after the whole thing was over.”
Christie said in a statement that the jury's decision held Baroni and Kelly accountable "for their own conduct" and that the trial turned up no "believeable evidence" that he either knew about or had a role in authorizing the lane closures.
— Matt Arco (@MatthewArco) November 4, 2016
While the scandal helped to derail Christie’s 2016 presidential bid, he was considered as a vice presidential pick by Donald Trump and is currently serving as the head of his transition team.
During the trial, Wildstein testified that he and Baroni “bragged” to Christie about the traffic jams in Fort Lee during a 9/11 memorial event on Sept. 11, 2013, three days into the lane closures. Kelly testified that she notified Christie about a planned traffic study that would cause gridlock on the bridge a month before the lanes were ordered closed, and he approved it. She said this prompted her to send Wildstein the infamous “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email that blew the scandal open when it was made public in January 2014.
Kelly also testified that she told Christie that Fort Lee’s mayor, Mark Sokolich, was concerned that the closures were an act of “government retribution” on the fourth day of the closures.
In his Friday statement, Christie pledged to “set the record straight in the coming days regarding the lies that were told by the media and in the courtroom.”
Prosecutors from the U.S. attorney's office told reporters outside the courthouse to draw their own conclusions about the governor's awareness of the scheme.
Both of Kelly and Baroni's lawyers said that their appeals would focus on Judge Susan Wigenton’s instruction to jurors that they did not need to find the pair collaborated to punish Sokolich, the Fort Lee mayor, in order to reach a guilty verdict. Although the indictment against Baroni and Kelly specifically described the lane closure scheme as punitive, Wigenton said that the pair could still be found guilty of conspiracy for abusing Port Authority resources.
A frustrated Baldassare blasted this decision in his comments to the press, asking “without David Wildstein and without punishment, what was this case about?”
This post has been updated.