Ex-Christie aide gets 2-year prison term for bridge plot

FILE PHOTO - Bill Baroni arrives for sentencing at federal court in Newark, N.J., Wednesday, March 29, 2017. Baroni and Bridget Kelly, former aides to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, are scheduled to be sentenced Wednesday for their roles in the 2013 George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) – A former aide to Gov. Chris Christie was sentenced Wednesday to two years in prison for his role in a political revenge plot involving traffic jams at the country’s busiest bridge, a scandal that sank the Republican’s presidential aspirations.

Bill Baroni, 45, was the first of two former Christie allies to be sentenced Wednesday after being convicted in November of all the counts against them, including wire fraud, conspiracy and misusing the bridge for improper purposes. Bridget Kelly, 44, will be sentenced later Wednesday.

The government’s star witness, David Wildstein, testified that he and the co-defendants plotted to cause gridlock to retaliate against the Democratic mayor of nearby Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie’s re-election. Fort Lee was plunged into gridlock for four days in September 2013. Text messages and emails produced at trial showed Mayor Mark Sokolich’s increasingly desperate pleas for help being ignored by Kelly and Baroni.

“I let a lot of people down who believed in me and relied on me. Most of all I let Mark Sokolich down. That was my choice and my responsibility. And I made the wrong choice,” Baroni told U.S. Judge Susan Wigenton before she sentenced him.

“I was wrong and I am truly sorry, and I’ve waited three years to say that.”

Wigenton said Baroni misled a state legislative committee when he said the traffic study was legitimate, and later misled the jury at his trial with the same contention.

“It was completely intended to wreak havoc,” she said. “It only served a punitive purpose. You clearly knew, and know today, that it was not” legitimate.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes said that Baroni’s time as a state lawmaker, lawyer and school teacher gave him the experience and judgment to conduct himself ethically.

“But when Bill Baroni was put to the test and made a choice, he chose to abuse his official power. And then he chose to lie about it,” Cortes said, calling Baroni’s conduct “brazen, calculated, and a mean-spirited abuse of power” that had “real-life consequences on the people he was supposed to serve.”

The scandal derailed Christie’s presidential aspirations and likely cost him a chance to be President Donald Trump’s running mate. While the sentencing was happening Wednesday, Christie was at the White House to launch a drug addiction task force.

Questions remain over when, and how much, Christie knew about the plan to realign access lanes from Fort Lee to the bridge’s upper level. The bi-level bridge is considered the busiest in the country.

At the time of the traffic jams, Kelly was Christie’s deputy chief of staff and Baroni was his appointee to the Port Authority, overseeing Wildstein as deputy executive director. Baroni testified that Wildstein was viewed as Christie’s enforcer, and several Port Authority officials testified that he was almost universally disliked at the agency.

Wildstein, a former political blogger and classmate of Christie’s, was hired as the director of interstate capital projects at the powerful Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge. The position was created for Wildstein, according to testimony.

Christie was not charged with any wrongdoing. But his version of events – that he was not aware that anyone in his office was involved until months after the fact – was contradicted by testimony from Baroni, Kelly and Wildstein.

In addition to focusing on dozens of text messages and emails exchanged between the co-conspirators – including Kelly’s infamous “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email – testimony at the trial painted an unflattering portrait of the Christie administration’s modus operandi.

Christie was described as cursing and throwing a water bottle at Kelly over an apparently innocent question and another time leaving a profane and threatening voicemail for a county officeholder who had angered him.

Wildstein testified that Christie’s subordinates used the Port Authority, the bistate agency that oversees huge chunks of New York’s transportation and commerce infrastructure, as a source of political favors for Democratic politicians whose endorsements he sought.

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Contact Porter at https://www.twitter.com/DavidPorter_AP

 

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