What to Know
- Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni were found guilty of all charges in the George Washington Bridge lane-closing case
- The most serious charge, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, carries a possible 20-year sentence
- Sentencing is set for Feb. 21
One of Gov. Chris Christie’s top aides and one of his appointees at the Port Authority were both found guilty of all charges, including conspiracy to commit wire fraud, in the George Washington Bridge lane-closing case.
Bridget Kelly, the New Jersey governor's former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, a former Port Authority executive, both face up to 20 years behind bars. They were convicted Friday in a nine-count indictment handed up in connection with the politically motivated lane closings at the nation’s busiest bridge in September 2013.
They were also found guilty of other conspiracy, fraud and civil-rights deprivation charges. Kelly cried as the verdict was being read, while Baroni showed no emotion.
The jury deliberated for five days after hearing more than six weeks of testimony. The verdict came before the judge ruled on a heavily redacted request by defense attorneys to declare a mistrial in the case.
Kelly's attorney, Michael Critchley, and Baroni's attorney, Michael Baldassare, both vowed to appeal, citing issues including disputed jury instructions.
Critchley draped an arm around his tearful client outside court after the verdict. "How would you think anyone would hold up under the circumstances? Her first concern is the impact this will have on her children," he said.
Baroni maintained his innocence.
"I am very very looking forward to this appeal," Baroni said.
Baldassare called the trial a disgrace and accused prosecutors of arbitrarily drawing the line on whom to charge in the case.
"This will be reversed," he said outside court. "The basis for the appeal are too numerous to mention."
U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said Friday that he only charged people where prosecutors had "evidence beyond a reasonable doubt'' to convict.
"We believe evidence in this case proved that two defendants were guilty; that for us is a just results," Fishman said. He added, "Do I think we're going to end political corruption in Jersey with one particular verdict? No."
THE TRIAL: POLITICAL REVENGE OR TRAFFIC STUDY?
Prosecutors had argued the lane closings were implemented as political retribution against Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, for failing to endorse Christie's 2013 re-election bid. Defense attorneys said their clients believed the lane closures to be part of a traffic study.
A key point of contention at trial was U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton's decision to tell jurors they didn't have to find that Kelly and Baroni knowingly intended to punish Sokolich in order to convict them of conspiracy.
Defense attorneys had objected vehemently to that ruling. Critchley said Friday, "I was very concerned at the time it was given and I'm still concerned."
In a statement Friday, Sokolich said Kelly and Baroni showed "complete disregard" for thousands of people put in harm's way.
"This can never happen again," Sokolich said. " This trial shed a very bright light on a sad set of circumstances in NJ. If reform does not come from this, we should all be ashamed.”
The pair will be sentenced Feb. 21. Fishman said recommendations for sentencing would be a bit higher than the 20 to 27 months for Wildstein.
'TIME FOR SOME TRAFFIC PROBLEMS IN FORT LEE'
David Wildstein, the admitted architect of the plan and then a high-ranking Port Authority official, pleaded guilty last year and had been working with the prosecution. He testified that Kelly and Baroni were aware of the plot against Sokolich.
Kelly and Baroni testified they believed the lane closings were part of a legitimate traffic study because, they said, that was what Wildstein told them.
The defense portrayed Wildstein as a liar and a dirty trickster — "the Bernie Madoff of New Jersey politics" — and argued that Christie and his inner circle had thrown the 44-year-old Kelly under the bus.
"They want that mother of four to take the fall for them. Cowards. Cowards," Critchley said in a thundering closing argument.
One of the most damning pieces of evidence was an email in which Kelly wrote: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." Then, as the four days of gridlock unfolded and Sokolich complained about children unable to get to school, she texted: "Is it wrong that I am smiling?"
On the stand, Kelly explained that she was referring to what she thought was a traffic study and expressing satisfaction that it was going well. As for why Kelly deleted the messages, her lawyer suggested she was afraid she was about to be made the scapegoat.
WHAT DID CHRISTIE KNOW?
Much of the testimony in the case implied that Christie and others on his staff may have known about the lane realignments well before they were put into effect. Christie hasn't been charged in the case. He has repeatedly said he found out about the closures weeks after they happened and only learned months later that members of his staff were involved.
After the verdict Friday, Christie reiterated he had "no knowledge prior to or during these lane realignments and had no role in authorizing them. Anything said to the contrary over the past six weeks in court is simply untrue."
"As a former federal prosecutor, I have respected these proceedings and refused to comment on the daily testimony from the trial," Christie added. "I will set the record straight in the coming days regarding the lies that were told by the media and in the courtroom."
At trial, Kelly, Baroni and Wildstein all testified that Christie was informed about the lane closings either before or while they were going on.
Wildstein, for example, said that Christie was told about the traffic jam as it was happening and that he laughed and sarcastically joked that nothing political was going on when he learned of Sokolich's distress over not getting his calls returned.
But it was not clear from Wildstein's testimony whether Christie knew the bumper-to-bumper mess was manufactured for political reasons. And Kelly testified that she told Christie the lane-closings were a traffic study when she informed him of the plans about a month ahead of time.
While the trial did not definitively pin the scheme on Christie, it reinforced his reputation among his critics as a bully, with accounts of profane tirades, threats of bodily harm and tough-guy posturing among the governor and his inner circle that seemed straight out of "The Sopranos."
Christie once threw a water bottle at Kelly in anger, she testified. And Wildstein told the jury that Christie called him "Mr. Wolf," after the character in the movie "Pulp Fiction" who is called in to clean up dead bodies.
According to testimony, Christie's office also used the Port Authority to punish or reward local politicians. Among the goodies the agency dispensed were pieces of steel from the original World Trade Center, destroyed on 9/11.
"These convictions will be an essential defining feature of Christie's legacy in office, and will forever taint how his administration is perceived and will be remembered," Montclair State University political science professor Brigid Callahan said. "He is damaged by the narcissistic way in which he was portrayed during the trial, a narrative that was accepted by the jury."
Last month, a judge allowed a citizen criminal complaint against Christie alleging official misconduct in connection with the lane closures to proceed. The Bergen County prosecutor will determine if there is sufficient evidence to present it to a grand jury.