Two convicted of creating traffic jam on New York bridge for 'political revenge'
Published 04/11/2016 | 16:11
Two former aides to the governor of New Jersey have been convicted of creating an epic traffic jam on the US's busiest bridge for what prosecutors described as political revenge.
The convictions cap a trial that cast doubt on governor Chris Christie's claims that he knew nothing about the scheme on the George Washington Bridge.
Bridget Kelly, Mr Christie's former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, a Christie appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, were found guilty of all counts against them.
Kelly cried as the verdict was read, while Baroni showed no emotion. Both defendants announced plans to appeal.
Mr Christie said the verdicts affirmed his decision to sack Baroni and Kelly and that the jury held them responsible "for their own conduct".
He repeated his claims that he had no knowledge of the plot and said he would "set the record straight" soon about "the lies told by the media and in the courtroom".
"I had no knowledge prior to or during these lane realignments, and had no role in authorising them. No believable evidence was presented to contradict that fact. Anything said to the contrary over the past six weeks in court is simply untrue."
Prosecutors said Kelly and Baroni plotted with Christie ally David Wildstein to close lanes at the foot of the bridge - a span that connects Fort Lee, New Jersey, to Washington Heights, New York City - and create gridlock in September 2013 to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Mr Christie for re-election.
Kelly, Baroni and Wildstein all told the trial that Mr Christie was informed about the lane closures either before or while they were going on.
Baroni's lawyer Michael Baldassare called the case a disgrace and said the US attorney's office should be "ashamed" of how it decided who to charge.
"They should have had belief in their own case to charge powerful people and they did not," Mr Baldassare said.
The federal jury took five days to reach a verdict in the scandal that helped sink Mr Christie's Republican campaign for president. The verdict on charges including conspiracy, misapplying the property of the Port Authority, wire fraud and deprivation of civil rights came before the judge ruled on a request by defence lawyers to declare a mistrial.
Sentencing is scheduled for February 21, and t he most serious charges carry up to 20 years in prison.
Wildstein, a high-ranking Port Authority official, pleaded guilty to orchestrating the scheme and was the prosecution's star witness. He faces a maximum of 15 years in prison but is expected to be sentenced to much less.
Kelly and Baroni said they believed the lane closures were part of a legitimate traffic study because that was what Wildstein told them.
The defence portrayed Wildstein as a liar and a trickster - "the Bernie Madoff of New Jersey politics" - and argued that Christie and his inner circle had made 44-year-old Kelly the scapegoat.
"They want that mother of four to take the fall for them. Cowards. Cowards," Kelly lawyer Michael 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."
As the four days of gridlock unfolded and Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich complained about children being unable to get to school, she texted: "Is it wrong that I am smiling?"
Kelly told the jury she was referring to what she thought was a traffic study and expressing satisfaction that it was going well. Her lawyer said she deleted the messages because she was afraid she was about to be made the scapegoat.
Wildstein said Mr 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 Mr Sokolich's distress over not getting his calls returned.
But it was not clear from Wildstein's evidence whether Mr Christie knew the bumper-to-bumper mess was manufactured for political reasons, and Kelly testified that she told him the closures were a traffic study when she informed him of the plans about a month ahead of time.
Siding with prosecutors, District Judge Susan Wigenton told jurors they did not have to find that Kelly and Baroni, also 44, knowingly intended to punish Mr Sokolich to convict them of conspiracy.
The gridlock began on the first day of school and held up commuters, school buses and emergency vehicles. Mr Sokolich's pleas went unanswered for four days on orders from Wildstein, the defendants said.
At the time, Mr Christie was considered a leading Republican presidential contender and was trying to run up a big landslide re-election victory to demonstrate his crossover appeal as a White House candidate.
He ultimately dropped out of the presidential race after a poor showing in the New Hampshire primary and said recently that the scandal probably influenced Donald Trump's decision not to pick him as his running mate.
He is a now a top Trump adviser and has campaigned for him.
While the trial did not definitively pin the scheme on Mr Christie, it reinforced his reputation among 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.