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Christie allies get prison for roles in Bridgegate scandal

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 3/29/2017 Paul Berger and Dustin Racioppi

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NEWARK, N.J. — The former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was sentenced to two years in prison Wednesday, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's former deputy chief of staff received 18 months in prison for their roles in a conspiracy to close down access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in September 2013. 

Bill Baroni, 45, formerly one of the top officials at the Port Authority, and Bridget Anne Kelly, 44, were found guilty in November of deliberately causing gridlock in Fort Lee, N.J., in a scheme to punish the town’s mayor for refusing to endorse Christie’s 2013 re-election. The Port Authority owns and operates the bridge, the world's busiest.

"I was wrong," Baroni told U.S. District Judge Susan D. Wigenton. "I've waited three years to say that." 

► Related: Prosecutors seek 3 years for 2 Bridgegate defendants

► Related: Bridgegate records remain sealed, for now

The pair were found guilty on seven counts of conspiracy, fraud, and civil rights violations. Prosecutors asked Wigenton to impose a prison term of about three years for each defendant for what they called “a stunningly brazen and vindictive abuse of power.”

“The use of government power at a publicly owned bridge to create traffic in town just to mess with one person,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes said. “Those are the actions out of the playbook of some dictator of a banana republic."

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Kelly’s and Baroni’s lawyers requested a sentence of probation and community service. Kelly, a single mother of three minors and a 20-year-old, also suggested a period of home confinement.

"Your biographical information will always have this senseless taint," Wigenton said as she handed down Baroni's sentence.

Wednesday's sentencing capped a 3½-year political drama that irreversibly damaged 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 the governor's friend and mentor. David Samson was a former New Jersey attorney general sentenced in the same courthouse at the beginning of March.

Samson, Christie’s top appointee at the Port Authority, received 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 New Jersey and New York agency that owns and operates most of the New York metropolitan area's major bridges; tunnels; airports; seaports; the Port Authority Trans Hudson rail system, better known as PATH; and the 16-acre World Trade Center site — can be misused to court, bribe and punish business leaders and politicians.

► Related: Trump hires aide Christie fired amid bridge scandal

► Poll: Christie should have been Bridgegate defendant

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.

During six weeks of testimony, prosecutors and defense lawyers 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.

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, N.J., who had declined to endorse the governor.

That way the mayor would “fully understand that life would be more difficult for him in the second Christie term than it had been in the first,” Wildstein said.

He 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.

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.

► 2016: Bridgegate brought dark inner workings of Christie team to light

► More: Who's who of Christie aides convicted of abusing power

The closures were timed to coincide with the first week of 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 Executive Director Pat Foye of the Port Authority, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s top appointee at the agency.

Christie denied all knowledge of the scheme and spent millions of dollars of taxpayer money on an external report that absolved him of blame. Though Christie never was 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.

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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 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 were forced to resign.

The scandal metastasized in January 2014 following The Record's publication 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 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 Trump requested his resignation, emphasized that his office prosecuted only those for whom there was “evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.”

A group of media outlets fought for the release of prosecutors' list 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.

Follow Paul Berger and Dustin Racioppi on Twitter: @pdberger and @dracioppi

Bill Baroni, left, and Bridget Kelly, right, arrive for sentencing at federal court in Newark on Wednesday, March 29, 2017. © Associated Press Bill Baroni, left, and Bridget Kelly, right, arrive for sentencing at federal court in Newark on Wednesday, March 29, 2017.
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