Ex-Allies of Gov. Christie Convicted of Conspiracy to Block Bridge to NY

      NEWARK, N.J. (CN) — A federal jury convicted two people Friday of conspiring to close lanes at the George Washington Bridge, and later covering up the scheme, as punishment for a New Jersey Democrat who had angered Gov. Chris Christie.
     The trial against 43-year-old Bridget Anne Kelly and 44-year-old Bill Baroni Jr. lasted for over six weeks at the Newark federal courthouse. Jury deliberations began late Monday, and the seven women and five men returned Friday at about 11:30 a.m. with guilty verdicts on all nine counts.
     Kelly and Baroni faced five charges together, plus each faced two individual counts of wire fraud. The joint charges included conspiracy to misuse (and actually misuse) government property and resources.
     At the time of the lane shutdown in September 2013, Kelly had been Christie’s former deputy chief of staff. Baroni served as deputy executive director at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the public agency that runs the busy bridge. As Christie’s top appointee to the bi-state agency, Baroni worked closely with another ally of the governor’s, David Wildstein, who pleaded guilty last year to his role in the scheme.
     After the verdict reading, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman told reporters that he expects a prison time of just over two years — slightly more than the sentence Wildstein will get in exchange for his guilty plea. Ahead of their Feb. 21 sentencing before U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton, bail conditions for all the defendants remain the same.
      Talking to reporters outside the courtroom, Kelly’s lead defense counsel Michael Critchley said they were “obviously disappointed” in the verdict and that they will appeal.
     “This is not over, I assure you,” said Critchley, repeating his “serious concerns” about how the jury was instructed on intent.
     “I’m surprised they’re guilty on any counts,” Critchley added.
     Standing beside his tearful client, the attorney said Kelly’s primary concern how this will affect her four children, the youngest of whom is in elementary school.
     Baroni held his composure in a speech of his own, maintaining his innocence and grandly thanking his supporters. Before his position at the Port Authority, the Republican had served on both the New Jersey Assembly and Senate.
     In additon to his family and legal team, Baroni took care to mention “my friends in the gay community, who have stood by me and lifted me up and supported me throughout the course of this trial.”
     Fallout from the verdict could have further implications for the New Jersey political scene. Indeed, several individuals incriminated by witness testimony over the course of the trial now advise the presidential campaign of Republican nominee Donald Trump.
     The biggest of these names of course is Christie himself, who chairs Trump’s transition committee and has seen his ratings to plummet to historic lows in Bridgegate’s aftermath. Evidence during the trial indicated that Christie knew of the lane closures and even blessed them a month beforehand.
     After the verdict Friday, the governor stood by his claim that he had no knowledge of his underlings’ traffic machinations. “No believable evidence was presented to contradict that fact,” Christie said in a statement.
     Christie has never been charged in connection to the plot, but the Third Circuit kept a lid on the government’s list of unindicted co-conspirators in the lead-up to Kelly and Baroni’s trial.
     Neither the defense attorneys nor prosecutors spoke after the verdict reading about future indictments.
     “We have no messages for the governor, that’s a political question,” said Critchely.
     Baroni’s attorney, Michael Baldassare, focused his remarks at the prosecutors.
     “The U.S. Attorney’s Office should be ashamed of this case,” said Baldassare.
     “They had the chance to charge powerful people and they did not,” he added.
     Facing a mountain of testimony against him, Christie insisted in his statement Friday that he will be vindicated.
     “I will set the record straight in the coming days regarding the lies that were told by the media and in the courtroom,” Christie said.
     Fishman, the federal prosecutor, noted that any case against Christie would rely on Wildstein’s evidence only — Kelly and Baroni’s testimony would not be admissible.
     “There was evidence that David Wildstein provided that the governor was told about the lane closures on September 11 of 2013,” Fishman said. “He did not say anything beyond what you heard in the courtroom.”
     The scandal erupted after Fort Lee, a small cliff-side city across the Hudson River from Manhattan, lost two of its three lanes leading onto the nearby George Washington Bridge.
     Just ahead of the lane closures, which caused unprecedented congestion, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich had declined to endorse Christie’s gubernatorial re-election.
     Fueling suspicion of a political-retribution scheme, news outlets soon began reporting on emails and text messages that implicated Kelly, Baroni and Wildstein as the culprits.
     The Port Authority forced Wildstein and Baroni’s resignations in December 2013, and Kelly was fired the next month after it came to light that she had sent the ominous message to Wildstein in August 2013: “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
      Two counts of civil-rights violations proved controversial during the trial, with defense counsel Critchley fighting to have charges tossed as overly vague.
     Judge Wigenton ultimately ruled against that motion.
     Another legal battle ensued when Critchley and Baldassare fought unsuccessfully against jury instructions said Baroni and Kelly were charged with misusing Port Authority resources and personnel, not with political revenge against Fort Lee’s Sokolich.
     Wigenton ruled against those watered-down jury instructions several times.
     Despite 35 witnesses, including an entire week dedicated only to Wildstein’s testimony, the judge kept Kelly and Baroni’s trial running at a brisk, efficient pace. The case ran over the six-week projection by only one day.
     Wigenton extended hours when necessary to compensate for time eaten up by holidays. She also urged the attorneys to settle some differences offline in her chambers rather than take up the jury’s time.
      Sidebars crept into the trial regardless, sidelining summations for a full day even, as attorneys struggled to hash out procedural matters or legal objections.
     During his summation, Critchley said the lane closures were the work of Wildstein and that the cover-up had the “fingerprints from New York and New Jersey” all over it. Several witnesses had testified in cross-examination that Christie, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, much of the Port Authority’s leadership, and a slew of Christie staffers had either known of or participated in the plot.
     Assistant U.S. Attorney Vikas Khanna told the jury that Kelly was far more politically savvy that she let on and that she had become “an active participant” in Christie’s politically oriented world. Baroni was not quite the “good cop” he had fashioned himself as, the prosecutor charged, emphasizing the defendant’s lies to New Jersey Legislature about the reason for the lane closures.     
     Fishman echoed these remarks after the verdict, saying Kelly was “disposed to using her position in a way that was not appropriate.”
     Contradicting the findings of a third-party report that the governor had ordered on the lane closures, the prosecutor said several onetime-Christie aides, including his campaign manager Bill Stepien, had stoked the flames of politicization that closed down the lanes.
     “[Kelly] was dealing with people like Mr. Stepien, who were encouraging that sort of behavior at the governor’s office,” Fishman said.
     Stepien’s attorney Kevin Marino declined to comment at the courthouse. He was present for the verdict, as he has been for much of the proceedings.

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