NEWARK, N.J. (CN) – Handing prison terms to the political operatives who orchestrated traffic on George Washington Bridge, a federal judge told the court Wednesday that the sentencing marks a “sad day for the state of New Jersey.”
William Baroni Jr. and Bridget Kelly were convicted late last year of shutting down two lanes leading onto the bridge in 2013 as political revenge meant to benefit their boss, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
While Kelly served as Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Baroni was his top appointee to the bistate agency that controls the bridge, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton sentenced the Republican appointees separately today on the nine counts for which they were convicted, including conspiracy to misuse government property and resources.
While the judge ordered Baroni to spend two years in prison, she gave Kelly a sentence of 18 months, finding that the mother of four was less responsible than her co-conspirator for the lane shutdown.
Wigenton said Kelly “got caught up in a culture and an environment that lost its way.” As Bridgegate showed, Wigenton said, New Jersey’s center of politics in Trenton has become a place where “either you are with us, or you are against us.”
The judge called Baroni’s false testimony to justify the misuse of Port Authority resources “far more alarming” than the closures themselves.
Baroni and Kelly both have maintained their innocence, saying they were misled into thinking that lane shutdown was part of a legitimate traffic study.
The heavily Democratic city of Fort Lee typically enjoys three lanes leading onto the busy George Washington Bridge, which connects the Garden State to New York City, but two of those lanes were closed without notice for four days during the scandal.
Christie had been running for re-election at the time, September 2013, and Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich earned the governor’s wrath for refusing to give an endorsement.
Before learning his sentence, Baroni expressed remorse for the difficulties he caused the citizens of Fort Lee. “It was my job to protect them, and I failed,” he said.
“I let Mark Sokolich down … and one day I hope Mark gives me the chance to apologize,” he added.
Though Kelly’s attorney Michael Critchley began the day trying to reinforce his client’s innocence, his client later sobbed as she apologized for the impact the lane closures had on Fort Lee. “I never intended to harm anyone,” Kelly said, asking for the court to allow her to rebuild her relationship with her children.
Kelly’s apology seemed to strike a chord with the judge, saying “there were residents of Fort Lee, citizens of New Jersey, and travelers who needlessly suffered.”
Defense attorney Michael Critchley noted that Kelly has become destitute in the wake of the scandal. “We have not gotten 5 cents” from this case, he said. “Nothing, judge, nothing,” he added. “She’s hanging on by her fingernails.”
Christie has never been charged in the scheme, but Kelly testified that the governor blessed it personally weeks before it happened.
Baroni hinted at this as well while taking responsibility for what happened. “No one else is responsible for my choice” to keep the lanes closed, though other high-ranking officials had known about the lane closures, he said.
Baroni and Kelly each faced up to 20 years in prison, but prosecutors sought only a fraction of that time. Though Baroni’s sentence aligned with that recommendation, there have been more creative requests for Kelly’s sentence. One letter to the judge suggested that Kelly should be made to drive over the George Washington Bridge once per day for the rest of her life. Kelly meanwhile sought a sentence of home confinement and probation.
Regarding Baroni this morning, U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes rebuked the defendant for his “brazen, calculated” series of lies, both at his trial and years earlier when he tried explaining the lane shutdown to a New Jersey committee as nothing more than a traffic study.
“This abuse of power had real consequences for the people of Fort Lee,” Cortes said, adding that Baroni “corrupted his office to send a petty and vindictive political message.”
Baroni’s defense meanwhile urged the court this morning to consider the 122 letters in support of their client. Calling the sentencing guidelines too stringent, they said Baroni’s sentence should also account for his cooperation with federal investigations of political corruption years before Bridgegate.
Cortes called Baroni’s FBI cooperation “overstated” and irrelevant to his stonewalling of the Bridgegate investigation. “He could have cooperated here, but he couldn’t tell the truth and he didn’t cooperate here,” Cortes said.
The Bridgegate scandal broke open in early 2014 after publication of emails and texts between Kelly, Baroni and David Wildstein — another Christie appointee to the Port Authority. The most infamous of those emails showed Kelly writing to Wildstein in August 2013 that it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Kelly told the court this afternoon about her embarrassment by the “insensitive and disrespectful” emails and text messages that the scandal brought to light.
U.S. Attorney David Feder countered at the hearing that Kelly had “tailored her narrative” regarding some of her damning emails. Bringing up the seven former colleagues of Kelly who contradicted her testimony, Feder said it was “plain that Ms. Kelly perjured herself on the stand.”
Though she did not amplify the sentence accordingly, Wigenton ruled that Kelly obstructed justice by admittedly deleting emails about the lane closures and instructing a subordinate to do the same.
U.S. Attorney Vikas Khanna emphasized that Kelly was no minor cog in the Christie political machine. She was a “central player without whom this crime never takes place,” and she “reveled in” the aftermath of the lane closures, Khanna argued.
Baroni and Kelly will be free on bond as they craft their appeals. “The fight is far from over,” Kelly said in a statement outside the court. The attorney Michael Levy with Sidley Austin will take over Baroni’s appeal from his trial attorney Michael Baldassarre.
Along with Wildstein, Baroni and Kelly remain the only political operatives charged on Bridgegate, but the communications show that multiple senior staffers in Christie’s office knew about the lane shutdown.
Wildstein, who was the government’s star witness, faces as much as 15 years behind bars, though the sentencing judge may reduce sentence in exchange for his cooperation with prosecutors. His sentencing hearing has not yet been scheduled.
Blowback from the scandal torpedoed Gov. Christie’s run for national office, and few others escaped the trial unscathed. The case has also tarnished the reputations of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, much of the Port Authority’s leadership, and a slew of additional Christie staffers.
An investigation stemming from but unrelated to Bridgegate led the conviction of former Port Authority head David Samson, a onetime mentor of Christie’s, who received a sentence of probation earlier this year.
The case may also have led to the ouster of the U.S. attorney who prosecuted it. Earlier this month U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman was ousted from his position by President Donald Trump.
Fishman called the manner of his ouster “abrupt and shocking.” Christie —who also found himself on the outs with Trump after Bridgegate — derided Fishman for “moaning and complaining.”
Though he never called Christie as a witness, Fishman emphasized in an interview with CBS earlier this month that he never declared Christie innocent. “We don’t actually say people didn’t do something, we don’t say that they’re innocent,” Fishman said in the interview.
Bill Brennan, a retired firefighter who is fighting to have Christie brought on charges for Bridgegate, attended the sentencing. Christie spent this morning at the White House where President Donald Trump tapped him to chair a new commission on opioid abuse. The governor does not plan to leave his New Jersey office for this post. His second term expires this year.