Bridgegate Trial Kicks Off Monday in NJ

     NEWARK, N.J. (CN) — Gearing up for opening statements Monday in the Bridgegate trial, Courthouse News takes a look at two years of intensive investigation into a scandal that has earned the ignominious distinction of being New Jersey’s most notable traffic jam.
     Several former staffers of Gov. Chris Christie are expected to testify — joined by political consultants, the Fort Lee mayor who was the target in the bridge shutdown, and Port Authority officials, one of whom has already pleaded guilty in the scandal.
     The scandal began in September 2013 when a five-day shutdown of several lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge snarled traffic for hours. Investigators charge that the shutdown was ordered by aides to Christie as political payback, then covered up with help from officials at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
     Bridget Anne Kelly and William Baroni Jr. stand accused of conspiracy and fraud for their alleged roles in the shutdown. Prosecutors say Kelly, who was Christie’s chief of staff, ordered the shutdown, and that Baroni, a Port Authority deputy executive director, conspired with her and others to help cover up the political motives.
     The most intriguing question — which is sure to be asked during the trial but may never get answered — is what role, if any, Christie played in the shutdown. Initially after the scandal broke, Christie brushed off questions with jokes, even suggesting he was in a hard hat putting up cones near the bridge. As the investigation intensified and more evidence has come to light, however, Christie has repeatedly asserted his innocence.
     Among evidence that undercuts such claims is a motion from Baroni’s defense team, quoting text messages two former Christie staffers exchanged as the governor spoke to the press in December 2013.
     “He lied,” one staffer said of Christie. “And if emails are found with the subpoena or ccfg emails are uncovered in discovery if it comes to that it could be bad.”
     The “ccfg” refers to Christie’s re-election campaign.
     Taking a break from stumping for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, Christie has waved off the text-message evidence.
     He told MSNBC host Brian Williams earlier this week that the state Legislature has already exonerated him, as has a Democratic-appointed U.S. attorney.
     “I put my head on my pillow at night knowing I executed my office ethically and with integrity, and that’s what this trial will show, whichever way it goes,” Christie said in the Williams interview.
     Christie has also denied being one of the names on a super-secret list of unindicted co-conspirators. Attorneys for Baroni and representing a group of media have argued the list is in the public interest and should be made public.
     This past summer, Christie said he doesn’t think his name is on the list but “I guess no one knows until they actually put the list out.”
     A public unveiling is far off. Though a federal judge ordered the list be made public in May, one of the unnamed co-conspirators brought a last-minute appeal to the Third Circuit —which was then joined by prosecutor Paul Fishman — that kept the list under wraps.
     U.S. Circuit Judge Kent Jordan wrote in the opinion that, while the list was “a matter of high public interest, the issue presented is basic and undramatic.” Jordan suggested that the list could still be made public during trial. “The time may come, perhaps at trial, when the information in the conspirator letter out to be made public, but that time is not here yet,” he wrote.
     Christie remains a target of sorts for Baroni and Kelly, whose attorneys have called for the co-conspirator list to be made public and also have issued subpoenas for Christie’s cellphone from 2013. U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton so far has ruled against those subpoenas, and Christie said his cellphone remains with his attorney.
     Both sides still are fighting to seal or unseal various documents. As recently as Tuesday, the court sealed the prosecution’s protective order, which the court said “contains information that, if disclosed, would implicate third-party privacy interests, pose a risk of reputational harm, and complicate the court’s efforts to ensure a fair trial.” Both the prosecution and defense want that order to remain sealed.
     As for Baroni and Kelly, they both have asserted their innocence. Kelly remains dogged by her email statement, before the lane shutdown, “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” She later texted a colleague with regards to schoolchildren getting stuck in the resulting bridge traffic: “Is it wrong that I’m smiling?”
     Baroni initially had told New Jersey legislators that the shutdown was due to a Port Authority traffic study. Prosecutors say the study was nothing but a cover story, and Port Authority officials admitted the traffic study was a retroactive excuse for the shutdown.
     Both Kelly and Baroni will testify at trial, their attorneys say.
     One official, former Port Authority Director of Interstate Capital David Wildstein, pleaded guilty in May 2015 for his role in the shutdown, admitting that the shutdown was payback against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie in the gubernatorial race. Wildstein is considered one of the prosecution’s star witnesses in the case.
     Jury selection wrapped up Wednesday. The trial may last as long as two months, some experts say.

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