Bridge-Trial Jury Urged to Convict|Gov. Christie’s ‘Fierce Lieutenants’

     NEWARK, N.J. (CN) — Making the case Friday to convict Bill Baroni and Bridget Kelly of orchestrating traffic for political vengeance, a federal prosecutor urged jurors to see through the costumes both donned on the stand when they presented themselves as hapless bureaucrats deceived by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s henchman.
     Calling Baroni and Kelly the governor’s “fierce lieutenants,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes argued in summation this morning that the pair had used public resources to punish one of Christie’s political enemies.
     “That’s what makes this a federal crime,” Cortes said.
     Baroni and Kelly are charged with fraud and misuse of government resources for lane closures at the George Washington Bridge. Run by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the bridge is one of the busiest in the world — connecting the Garden State with New York City.
     The bridge has a reputation for congestion, but New Jersey commuters received their fill of it in September 2013 when three access lanes reserved for the city of Fort Lee became one.
     Just before the four-day lane shutdown, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich had declined to endorse Republican Christie’s re-election.
     Facing pressure over the emergency vehicles and school buses snarled in gridlock traffic, Port Authority officials initially blamed the closed lanes on a traffic study. When that traffic study proved to be a cover-up for political retribution, the Port Authority forced the resignations of Baroni and fellow Christie appointee David Wildstein.
     “Let’s be clear,” Cortes told the jury this morning, “there was never an intent to do a legitimate traffic study.”
     As part of a guilty plea, Wildstein spent eight days on the stand in Baroni and Kelly’s trial, testifying that they were in on the plot.
     Cortes told the court this morning that Wildstein’s testimony is enough for them to convict, but that the damning electronic evidence against the defendants cannot be overlooked.
     As the prosecutor spoke, a slideshow playing for jury repeatedly flashed to the infamous email Kelly sent just before the lane shutdown.
     “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote, the text of her email to Wildstein magnified on the courtroom screen.
     Kelly insisted on the stand this week that she had just been using shorthand, telling Wildstein to begin the traffic study. The mother of four had been a deputy chief of staff in Christie’s office at the time.
     Cortes urged the jury to see through Kelly’s explanation.
     “These words are clear,” Cortes said. “These words are definite.”
     “These words do not say ‘time for a traffic study,'” he added.
     The prosecutor employed a similar style when focusing on Kelly’s co-defendant, playing a clip for the jury of Baroni testifying to the New Jersey Assembly about the lane closures.
     “The intent of Mr. Baroni’s words are clear,” Cortes said. “The intent of Mr. Baroni’s words are definite.”
     Baroni told lawmakers on Nov. 25, 2013, that there was an innocent explanation for why the Port Authority let Sokolich spend days during the lane closures pleading for help with no reply.
     Emails entered into evidence reveal that Wildstein had advised Baroni to initiate “radio silence” with Sokolich, a Democrat, but Baroni told lawmakers that there had been a breakdown in communications.
     Cortes questioned why the jury heard a different explanation; Baroni told them he believed that calling Sokolich would skew the traffic study.
     Then the prosecutor played a compilation clip for the jury of all the times Baroni referenced a “communication” breakdown in his Assembly testimony. “That clip of Mr. Baroni would almost be funny if it wasn’t sad,” Cortes said.
     Cortes told the jury that the evidence makes clear that Baroni tried to keep Sokolich in the dark and to deceive the New Jersey Legislature.
     Baroni was uneasy on the stand even testifying about the explicit messages Christie forced him to relay, but Cortes told the jury there are “two Bill Baronis.”
     One is the nice guy who once walked door to door in Weehawken to tell residents about a Port Authority project, Cortes said, and the other one lied in testimony to the New Jersey Assembly.
     Contrasting the weak presentation of himself Baroni had given to the jury, Cortes referenced the defendant’s history of fiery witness testimony. A year before the New Jersey Assembly’s Bridgegate hearings, the U.S. Senate interrogated Baroni on Port Authority toll increases.
     It simply is not believable, Cortes said, for Baroni now to argue that Wildstein pressured him not to “wimp out.”
     “Come on,” Cortes said. “That guy is not a wimp.” Knowing that the traffic study was bogus, what reason there was to hold up the traffic for hours in Fort Lee, Cortes asked.
     “Spite is not a legitimate government purpose,” the prosecutor said.
     Cortes also reminded the jury about testimony from the individuals who had worked below Kelly in the 2013 Christie administration.
     Christopher Stark, Christina Renna, Matt Mowers, Jeanne Ashmore, Deborah Gramiccioni and Mike Drewniak: All had remembered Kelly actively trying to freeze out Sokolich. Kelly maintained in her testimony, however, that each witness had either lied, misremembered or left out key details.
     Cortes was incredulous, asking the jury why they should believe that everyone else got it wrong, but Kelly got it right.
     Kelly nodded in her seat at the defense table as the prosecutor rattled off each witness’s name.
     While on the witness stand, Kelly had given an innocent explanation for why she replied “good” to an email from Renna, discussing Sokolich’s complaint that Christie’s office was making him look like a “fucking idiot.”
     Kelly deleted the “good” email on her end, as did Renna.
     Cortes asked the jury to consider why Kelly deleted only her reply, not Renna’s incoming email about the complaint.
     Like Baroni, Kelly testified that she never doubted the legitimacy of the traffic study Wildstein had pitched to her.
     Cortes insisted in his closing argument, however, that the defendant’s text messages and emails tell a different story.
     The messages offer a “window into the mind of Bridget Kelly,” the prosecutor said.
     Over the course of witness testimony, the jury heard several stories about Wildstein’s long history of political trickery.
     These details may have been new to the court, but Cortes said Baroni and Kelly both knew the depths of Wildstein’s reputation.
     Like Wildstein, Cortes said, Kelly and Baroni both showed an “intense commitment to Chris Christie’s political future,” the prosecutor added.
     Kelly’s defense attorney had cast his client as a glorified “scheduler” during opening arguments, but Cortes called Kelly a “veteran public servant.”
     One of only about a dozen senior advisers to the governor, Kelly acted as Christie’s “eyes and ears,” Cortes said.
     Cortes also told the jury that Kelly’s job in the Christie administration was one for which she had been “groomed by Bill Stepien,” referencing a current adviser to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
     When Kelly succeeded Stepien at Christie’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, months before the lane closures, the governor had just pulled Stepien onto his re-election campaign.
     Jurors heard from the prosecution today that it was Stepien and other higher-ups in the Christie administration who paved the way for Baroni’s appointment to the Port Authority.
     Cortes emphasized that Baroni and Kelly were two serious political people, “key, high-ranking government officials” with both power and access.
     Back in 2000, Baroni, Stepien and Wildstein all worked on the failed U.S. Senate run of Bob Franks, then a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
     Another big player in Christie’s world who worked on the same Franks campaign was Mike DuHaime.
     Christie was a U.S. attorney running for governor in 2009 when he tapped DuHaime as his chief political strategist.
     Like Stepien, DuHaime is now also advising the Trump presidential campaign. Christie chairs the Republican nominee’s transition committee.
     All three have denied involvement in or contemporaneous knowledge of the bridge plot, but several witnesses in the trial have contradicted them over the course of the Baroni-Kelly trial.
     The government has a secret list of unindicted co-conspirators connected to the Bridgegate trial, but the Third Circuit opted last month to keep these names sealed.
     Discussing the relationship among those whom the government did indict, Cortes described Wildstein as the “middle man” between Baroni and Kelly.
     Wildstein “was the glue” between them, Cortes added.
     Closing arguments had initially been slated to begin Thursday, but the proceedings took a detour on jury instructions.
     The defense scored big on this point, with the court finding that prosecutors must prove a punishment motive.
     After five hours of arguments from the prosecution, court concluded Friday with summation by Baroni’s attorney, Michael Baldassare.
     “Who ever heard of a conspiracy like this?” the attorney asked.
     Baroni had a smile on his face at various points during his attorney’s closing, where Baldassare offered jurors another question: “Do you trust David Wildstein?”
     To convict Baroni, the jury must find that Baroni intended to punish Sokolich. Baldassare said Wildstein is the only source for that allegation, and any mistrust of Wildstein offers reasonable doubt.
     Noting that Wildstein still has not been sentenced for his role in Bridgegate, Baldassare argued that the prosecution’s star witness is saying anything he can to get leniency.
     During his lengthy testimony, “David Wildstein reinvented himself,” the attorney added.
     Baldassare reminded the court Wildstein’s pseudonym on his politics blog: Wally Edge, the former New Jersey governor who had been famous for hobnobbing with Atlantic City’s Enoch “Nucky” Johnson.
     Ramping up the snake imagery, Baldassare told the court that Wildstein shed his skin.
     Wildstein was smirking during his testimony; “he liked being up there,” Baldassare said.
     Baroni was Christie’s top appointee to the Port Authority, but Baldassare argued that no reasonable person could conclude that Christie would give him free rein to do whatever he wanted there.
     Baldassare said Christie put Wildstein at the agency — inventing a position for him there — to be Baroni’s handler.
     As the court heard from Kelly’s testimony, Baldassare noted, Christie was “a micromanager” and a “bully.”
     Baldassare called it “disgusting” the way Christie treated Kelly.
     The attorney questioned why prosecutors never sought witness testimony from many of the other relevant officials like Christie, Port Authority Deputy Counsel Philip Kwon and Port Authority Commissioner William “Pat” Schuber.
     “I still can’t figure out Wildstein and the governor,” the attorney said.
     Baldassare noted that there are 169 points Wildstein claimed to have discussed with Baroni, but no physical evidence — email or text messages — backing up those claims.
     Wildstein testified that he “discussed” with Baroni that the lane shutdown was punishment for Sokolich. Wildstein testified that Baroni had laughed about letter in which Sokolich called the traffic situation “maddening.”
     There is no electronic evidence for any of this, Baldassare said.
     Likewise, the attorney argued, there is no evidence of any relationship between Baroni and Kelly. All the government has, Baldassare said, is Wildstein’s claim to have “discussed” the infamous “time for some traffic problems” email Kelly sent.
     Baldassare also defended the possibility that the lane shutdown was due to a legitimate traffic study, which has been the defense’s main theory.
     “The traffic study, was it real? Who knows,” Baldassare told the jury, throwing up his hands. “I know one thing, that we heard from the engineers [ who collected data and analyzed it]. That sounds like a study.”
     However, Baldassare finished his summation as he began it, attacking Wildstein, who he said was “disgusting” for insulting his so-called friend Baroni in texts to a colleague. Baldassare said that Baroni thought of Wildstein as a friend and trusted him. “Don’t make the same mistake,” he told the jury.
     Kelly’s attorney, Michael Critchley, is scheduled to begin his summation on Monday, after which the government will finish its closing arguments. Jury deliberation is expected to begin late Monday and go into Tuesday at the least.