|Bill Baroni sentenced to two -ear prison term|
Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority, was sentenced to two years in prison Wednesday, saying that he "made the wrong choices" and "listened to the wrong people" in explaining his role in the conspiracy to close down access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in September 2013. The sentencing of his co-conspirator, Bridget Anne Kelly was scheduled for early afternoon.
The sentencing capped a three-and-a-half year political drama that irreversibly damaged Gov. Chris Christie’s reputation, undermined his presidential campaign, and made the so-called Bridgegate scandal the butt of late night talk show jokes. The scandal also led to an investigation that brought down Christie’s friend and mentor David Samson, a former state attorney general and co-founder of a powerhouse law firm, who appeared in the same Newark courthouse at the beginning of March.
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Bridget Kelly arrives for sentencing at federal court in Newark on Wednesday, March 29, 2017.
(Photo: Associated Press)
Samson, Christie’s top appointee at the Port Authority, was sentenced to one year’s home confinement for using his position as chairman of the agency to bribe United Airlines into running a money-losing flight between Newark and an airport close to his vacation home in South Carolina.
Both cases underlined how the Port Authority, a bi-state agency that owns and operates most of the region’s major bridges, tunnels, airports, seaports, the PATH rail system and the 16-acre World Trade Center site, can be misused to court, bribe and punish business leaders and politicians.
David Samson, former chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, center,
arrives at the courthouse in Newark on March 6. (Photo: Seth Wenig/AP)
In particular, the bridge lane closure trial showed how Christie, who relishes his persona as a tough talker, ran a calculating and at times vindictive administration that even in its earliest years had one eye on the 2016 presidential campaign.
On Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney, Lee Cortes, said that part of the reason the case had captured the public imagination was because the facts here are “almost unfathomable.”
“The use of government power at a publicly owned bridge to create traffic in town just to mess with one person,” Cortes said. “Those are the actions out of the playbook of some dictator of a banana republic. It’s incomprehensible such action could take place here in the United States.”
U.S. District Judge Susan D. Wigenton said Wednesday that it could be argued that Baroni was more culpable than Kelly. Wigenton said that the lane closures were “an outrageous display of abuse of power.”
Baroni addressed the court, expressing remorse for his actions, saying "I let the people in Fort Lee down."
"While a number of people outside of this courtroom were involved in Fort Lee that day — some charged, some not — that does not change the fact that I failed," he added. "I made the wrong choices, took the wrong guidance, listened to the wrong people. I was wrong and I am truly sorry."
During six weeks of testimony, prosecutors and defense attorneys described how the Christie administration showered Democratic officials with treats from the Port Authority “goody bag” in a bid to court endorsements to burnish the governor’s bi-partisan bona fides. Inducements included private tours of the World Trade Center construction site, agency grants and contracts, and pieces of burnt steel and flags from Ground Zero.
BRIDGEGATE FILES: What Bill Baroni said
BRIDGEGATE FILES: What Bridget Kelly said
Staffers kept a spreadsheet of the favors so that they could always remind officials how generous the administration had been. Civic leaders perceived as disloyal to Christie, even those in towns that relied upon constant communication with the Port Authority because they host agency facilities, were punished with “radio silence.”
David Wildstein, Baroni’s second-in-command at the Port Authority and the man generally regarded as Christie’s eyes, ears and enforcer at the agency, testified that it was his idea to use the bridge as a weapon against the mayor of Fort Lee, who had declined to endorse the governor, so that he would “fully understand that life would be more difficult for him in the second Christie term than it had been in the first.”
David Wildstein exits the federal courthouse in Newark after pleading guilty to two counts
of conspiracy in May 2015. (Photo: Marko Georgiev/northjersey.com)
Wildstein pleaded guilty to the conspiracy in 2015 and served as the government’s star witness at the trial. A date for his sentencing has not been set.
Kelly and Baroni were found guilty of conspiring with Wildstein to create gridlock in Fort Lee by shutting down two of three access lanes to the bridge to punish mayor Mark Sokolich for refusing to endorse Christie’s 2013 re-election.
BRIDGEGATE FILES: What the prosecutor said
BRIDGEGATE FILES: What the defense lawyers said
They deliberately ignored Sokolich’s pleas for help during the week of the lane closures and Baroni covered up the true purpose of the scheme by insisting that it was part of a traffic study.
The closures were timed to coincide with the first week back to school in September, severely delaying school buses, commuters and emergency vehicles over four mornings. The restrictions were lifted on the fifth morning on the orders of Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s top appointee at the agency.
Christie denied all knowledge of the scheme and spent millions of taxpayer money on an external report that absolved him of blame. Though Christie was never charged in the criminal case, multiple witnesses at the trial testified that Christie was told of the lane closures before, during and shortly after they took place.
Gov. Chris Christie has amassed the most state credit downgrades of any governor in
U.S. history. (Photo: Kevin R. Wexler/NorthJersey.com)
At a press conference in January 2014, Christie said that he had been blindsided by the bridge lane closure scheme.
But Baroni and Wildstein testified that they joked with Christie about the traffic problems in Fort Lee — as they were occurring — at a Sept. 11 anniversary event at the World Trade Center in 2013. Kelly said she informed Christie of the lane reductions before they began and that she warned him about traffic problems in Fort Lee during the week of the closures. Several top aides testified that they warned Christie that some of his top allies were involved with the closures in December, around the same time that Wildstein and Baroni was forced to resign.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW: After Bridgegate, many Christie allies thrived
FORT LEE: Port Authority rejects borough's bid for Bridgegate compensation
The scandal metastasized in January 2014 following the publication by The Record and NorthJersey.com of an August 2013 email from Kelly to Wildstein — "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." That was when Christie fired Kelly and distanced himself from his 2013 campaign manager Bill Stepien, who has gone on to become President Donald Trump’s political director.
As comprehensive as the trial was, with dozens of witnesses and hundreds of excerpts from emails, text messages, documents and video recordings, it still left many unanswered questions, in particular who else knew about the scheme.
In the months leading up to the trial and in its aftermath, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, who has since left his post after President Trump requested his resignation, emphasized that his office only prosecuted those for whom there was “evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.” A group of media outlets fought for the release of a list compiled by prosecutors of people suspected of involvement in the plot. But one of the men on that list raised a legal challenge and succeeded in blocking its release.
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