Probation Sentence for Key Witness in NJ Bridgegate Scandal

NEWARK, N.J. (CN) – A key player in New Jersey’s Bridgegate scandal who turned state’s evidence against two co-conspirators was sentenced to probation Wednesday by a federal judge.  

David Wildstein, 55, pleaded guilty in 2015 to masterminding the shutdown of two lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge — causing a massive traffic jam in the city of Fort Lee whose Democratic mayor refused to endorse the re-election of Gov. Chris Christie.

Republican Christie had appointed Wildstein to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the bistate agency that runs the heavily trafficked bridge connecting Fort Lee and Manhattan.

At a 11 a.m. sentencing hearing Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton gave Wildstein three years of probation and 500 hours of community service.

Though the co-conspirators Wildstein testified against were given prison sentences, Wigenton  highlighted that Wildstein is the only one who admitted guilt or worked with prosecutors, doing so even before a plea agreement.

She called Wildstein “the single most important witness” in the case, but added that what he did was “inexcusable.”

Addressing the court, Wildstein said he felt “tremendous guilt” for what he did, and that he “willingly drank the Kool-Aid” in Christie’s office that prioritized politics over all else.

In addition to offering an apology “to the people of the state of New Jersey for magnifying the stereotype of politics in the state,” Wildstein spoke of how it was “agonizing” to testify against fellow Christie appointees Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni, having considered himself their friend.

“I have done the best I could to right this incredible wrong,” he said, later leaving the courthouse without answering any questions.

The Bridgegate scandal culminated in fall 2016 when Kelly and Baroni were convicted for their roles in the four-day shutdown.

Kelly, who served as Christie’s deputy chief of staff, received 18 months in prison. Baroni, who was sentenced to two years in prison, was Christie’s top appointee to the Port Authority. Both have appealed their sentences.

Though Wildstein’s plea agreement outlined a 27-month prison sentence, prosecutors urged Wigenton in a letter Tuesday to sentence Wildstein only to probation, claiming that Widlstein had provided them with “timely, complete and truthful information and testimony.”

U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes also said in the brief that, “were it not for Wildstein’s decision to cooperate and disclose the true nature of the lane reductions, there likely would have been no prosecutions related to the Bridge Scheme.”

Christie has never been charged in the scheme, the so-called Bridge Scheme became one of the defining aspects of his second term as New Jersey governor.

Both Wildstein and Kelly testified during the trial that the governor blessed the shutdown personally weeks before it happened.

Wildstein for one told the court that Baroni had told Christie about Fort Lee’s traffic problems on the third day of the lane closures. During this testimony prosecutors showed a picture of the trio from that day, laughing.

They were laughing about the lane shutdown, Wildstein testified.

Acting U.S. Attorney Bill Fitzpatrick characterized Wildstein’s testimony as truthful Wednesday while talking to reporters after the sentencing hearing concluded.

“Nobody gets off scot-free,” Fitzpatrick said, when asked about the decision not to indict Christie.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office can bring indictments only against those whom it believes it can bring a case against, Fitzpatrick added.

Wildstein had a reputation as a Nixon-esque political schemer. He wrote a snarky political blog under the pseudonym Wally Edge, a former New Jersey governor, and admitted to once stealing U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s jacket during a political debate as a prank.

Wildstein and Baroni sometimes joked that he was akin to the Winston Wolfe character in “Pulp Fiction,” and Wildstein would sometimes refer to himself as Christie’s “enforcer.”

Baroni and Kelly both testified that they had trusted Wildstein and had no knowledge the shutdown was a political move. Baroni, who had been friends with Wildstein, repeatedly testified that his biggest mistake was “trusting David Wildstein.”

Wildstein had little love lost among others at the Port Authority, including Executive Director Pat Foye, who described him as “abusive and untrustworthy.” Foye also said that Wildstein — who made more than $150,000 a year as director of interstate capital at the agency, an essentially made-up position — was essentially untouchable while at the Port Authority, as only Christie could fire him.

Indeed Wildstein famously stated he had a “one-constituent rule” while at the interstate agency: to serve his former high school classmate and political patron Christie.

“If it was good for Gov. Christie, it was good for us,” Wildstein testified. “If it was not good for Gov. Christie, then it was not good for us.”

This rule led Wildstein to conjure the lane shutdown plot. He had noted in 2011 while touring Fort Lee that the city had its own entry lanes onto the bridge, and that they could be used as a “leverage point” with Mayor Mark Sokolich.

The heavily Democratic city of Fort Lee typically enjoys three lanes leading onto the busy George Washington Bridge, but two of those lanes were closed without notice for four days during the scandal.

The Bridgegate scandal broke open in early 2014 after newspapers published emails and texts between Kelly, Baroni and Wildstein. 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.”

During the trial, Wildstein, a particularly combative witness, dredged up a number of other political figures as having known about or helped cover up the scandal, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. 

Wildstein also proclaimed from the stand, however, that he was reformed. “I’ve done a lot of reflection,” he told defense attorneys, claiming that he was embarrassed by his former political dirty tricks.

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