NEWARK, N.J. – The fallout from the scandal known as “Bridgegate,” which has dogged Gov. Chris Christie’s presidential prospects, continues.
Two of the Republican’s former allies – his ex-deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly and his former top-Port Authority official Bill Baroni – pleaded not guilty on charges related to the plan to cause massive traffic problems on the George Washington Bridge, back in September 2013, for political retribution.
Baroni and Kelly’s arraignment on Monday morning came on the heels of David Wildstein – another one of Christie’s former allies and a Port Authority official – pleading guilty on Friday in connection with the scheme. Wildstein maintained that he, Kelly, and Baroni plotted together to create the traffic jams – on the first day of school — to punish Democratic Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Gov. Christie’s re-election bid. Then, federal authorities say, the three used the excuse of a bogus traffic study to cover up their actions.
Bail was set at $150,000 for both Baroni and Kelly and a trial date was scheduled for July 7.
After his court appearance, Baroni – who in the morning walked into the court room smiling and waving to reporters – broke his 16-month silence since the scandal came to light. “I would never risk my career, my job, my reputation for something like this. I am an innocent man,” he said, adding that he will testify on his own behalf as soon as he is able.
Kelly did not deliver any remarks. However, her lawyer, Michael Critchley, gave a brief statement in which he criticized the U.S. government for relying solely on Wildstein, whom he called a “flawed narrator.” Critchley also did not rule out subpoenaing Gov. Christie, saying he will call on “anybody” to help prove his client is innocent. When asked who ordered the lane closures, he said “you’ll find out at trial.”
On Friday, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman announced that Baroni and Kelly were individually charged by a federal grand jury in a nine-count indictment. The charges include conspiring to misuse – and actually misusing – property of an organization receiving federal benefits, conspiring to commit wire fraud, conspiring to injure and oppress certain individuals’ civil rights.
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Kelly on Friday held a press conference in Livingston N.J., where she, like Baroni, spoke out for the first time in 16 months. “I will no longer allow the lies that have been said about me or my role in the George Washington Bridge issue go unchallenged,” the mother of four said. “I am not guilty of these charges. I never ordered or conspired with David Wildstein … David Wildstein is a liar.”
She also alluded to some of the emails and text messages that have been made public, including her now-infamous Aug. 13, 2013 email in which she declared “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Kelly told the press that “some of my offhanded attempts at humor” were “insensitive” and “do not reflect my true intentions.”
One of the biggest questions now is just how the latest developments will affect Christie, who is considering running for president in 2016. He weighed in on the charges on Friday, arguing they re-emphasized what he has been saying all along—that he had no knowledge or involvement in the lane closures.
Alan Zegas, Wildstein’s attorney, however reiterated a point he has made in the past – that “evidence exists” showing Christie was aware of the lane closures as they were happening. What that evidence is, and if it exists, remain to be seen.
Meanwhile, a new poll from Monmouth University had bad news for Christie, with 52% of New Jersey resiednts believing Christie has not been completely honest about his knowledge of the scandal.
Christie has no public events schedule for Monday. On Thursday, he’ll be in the early voting state of New Hampshire where he’ll continue to test the 2016 waters.