Four hundred seventy-seven days after receiving a referral from the Inspector General of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the office of U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Paul J. Fishman today laid out a first glimpse of the criminal prosecutions arising from Bridgegate.
For four days in September 2013, approach lanes that guide traffic from Fort Lee, N.J. to the eastbound upper deck of the George Washington Bridge, the busiest bridge in the world, were condensed into one lane.
From afar, that may seem like a trivial traffic pattern alteration. But on the ground, it was a nightmare for the residents of Fort Lee, the 36,000 person town perched atop cliffs along the Hudson River. The traffic jam began on the first day of school. Buses full of children were late to school – not by minutes but by hours. Already edgy commuters called city hall. Ambulance crews and EMTs had to abandon their vehicles to reach sick residents on foot. The local police chief tried, with no success, to reach counterparts at the Port Authority Police Department to get an explanation and seek relief. Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich phoned New Jersey’s top executive at the agency, which owns and operates the bridge, seeking an explanation. After getting no response, he phoned the governor’s office. Again, no response. On the fourth day of the closings he sent a letter seeking to quietly persuade the Port Authority to reverse its changes, detailing the hardships being imposed on his borough’s residents.
Even after the lanes were re-opened, Sokolich continued to seek an explanation for what had happened. He texted Bill Baroni, the attorney and former GOP state senator who had been N.J. Gov. Chris Christie’s top appointee at the agency since 2010: “Someone needs to tell me that the recent traffic debacle was not punitive in nature… Perhaps someone can enlighten me as to the errors of my ways.”
Early on, Sokolich and local officials in Fort Lee suspected that the lane closures might have been linked to his decision not to endorse the re-election campaign of Chris Christie. However, he also did not believe that as the Democratic mayor of a largely Democratic town that his endorsement would have been worth all that much to an incumbent’s Republican’s re-election campaign. Christie eventually won that race with 60% of the vote; his opponent, Democratic state senator Barbara Buono carried just 38.2%.
To me, it has always seemed somewhat unbelievable that Bridgegate, as it is now called, could have been an operation designed to punish Sokolich for not endorsing Christie. Even after documents came out showing that Baroni and his deputy, David Wildstein, Christie’s No. 2 appointee at the agency, colluded to explain the traffic jam away as the result of an ill-conceived traffic study, the endorsement explanation seemed too petty to be sufficient. Even after officials who worked alongside Bridget Anne Kelly, a former legislative staffer who became a deputy chief of staff in Christie’s Trenton office, testified in front of a state legislative panel that Kelly and her team aggressively worked alongside campaign staffers to win the endorsements of local officials on behalf of the governor, the endorsement explanation of Bridgegate seemed like a kind of absurd overreaction – a punishment simply incongruent to the crime.
Alas, I was mistaken.
In offering a long-rumored guilty plea under the white vaulted ceiling of a courtroom on the fifth floor of Newark’s federal courthouse, David Wildstein – suited, bearded, and ninety-one pounds slimmer than he was a year ago – told a federal judge that he, Baroni, and Kelly conspired to “punish Mark Sokolich by deliberately causing significant traffic problems in Fort Lee” in retaliation for his failure to endorse Christie’s re-election. More than a hundred reporters were crammed into the courtroom
In a plea agreement he signed on January 21 of this year, Wildstein pled guilty to two charges: “conspiracy to obtain by fraud, knowingly convert, and intentionally misapply property of an organization receiving federal benefits” by causing a traffic jam at the Port Authority-owned George Washington Bridge (18 USC 371) and “conspiracy against civil rights” for preventing people from being able to freely move about their town (18 USC 241).
According to Wildstein, Baroni cooperated with plans they hatched in August to begin planning the traffic jam, and the trio deliberately chose to start the operation on the first day of school so as to “maximize congestion” in the borough. They subsequently conspired to concoct a cover story regarding a traffic study, using the “resources… time and services” of Port Authority employees to “prepare…[a] false and misleading written statement” that Baroni presented to a panel of state lawmakers. Prosecutors charge that Baroni approached Port Authority police officials “to enlist their assistance in falsely corroborating” the traffic study cover story. The indictment alleges that Baroni, Kelly, and Wildstein “caused public statements to be prepared by others,” too, in support of Baroni’s public testimony (which was not given under oath).
At a press conference today, Paul Fishman said that the charges against Wildstein carry a recommended sentence of 21-to-27 months in prison, a term that may be reduced if his cooperation with the feds nets guilty verdicts.
Baroni and Kelly, meanwhile, each face nine-count indictments and will be arraigned in the same federal courtroom on Monday morning. The duo face the same two charges to which Wildstein pled guilty, along with a separate fraud charge under 18 USC 666 and five wire fraud counts. The theoretical maximum sentence for those crimes is more than 85 years in prison.
All for an endorsement.
Asked today whether he believed that the Christie Administration encouraged a bullying culture among staff and appointees, Fishman declined to offer the kinds of statements that frequently come from Preet Bharara, his counterpart in New York. He also indicated that he did anticipate additional indictments, although it is widely expected that his office will pursue a separate batch of charges against former Port Authority chairman David Samson, a political godfather to Gov. Christie.
Although Baroni, Kelly, and Wildstein all worked in concert with staff who could – and should – have known that the traffic study story was a hollow confection, none of those staffers were included in today’s indictments. Paul Fishman declined to name additional unindicted co-conspirators. Meanwhile, Bridget Kelly’s attorney, at a press conference held later in the day that seemed to be aimed at softening up a jury pool, said that it was obvious that Kelly had not felt empowered to authorize the traffic jam on her own. She “did not wake up and become a rogue employee” in the governor’s office, said Michael Critchley, as he announced the formation of a legal defense fund that would support Kelly’s anticipated expenses. Earlier in the day, Baroni’s lawyer, Michael Baldassare, held an event where he called Wildstein a “habitual liar” who was unfairly implicating his client in a conspiracy.
The problem for both Kelly and Baroni at this point is that a paper trail supports many of Fishman’s allegations. The question is whether a jury will buy into a fraud charge arising from a unique story – I have not been able to find a similar fraud charge involving a public asset like a bridge and a case where one of the defendants hasn’t been involved in offering or accepting a conventional bribe (cash money!) rather than something like a political endorsement.
What is clear however, is that both defendants’ attorneys intend to tell two stories: that David Wildstein is a liar, and that the trio couldn’t have been acting alone.
Back in court on Monday. Watch this space.