NEWARK, New Jersey -- A former top appointee of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pleaded guilty Friday in connection with a plan to cause traffic problems on the George Washington Bridge as political payback. Two other former Christie allies, meanwhile, face federal criminal charges in the scandal known as Bridgegate.
At the federal court here in the Garden State's largest city, David Wildstein acknowledged conspiring with Bill Baroni, Christie’s then-top Port Authority appointee, and Bridget Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich by closing lanes on the entrance to the George Washington Bridge in 2013, because Sokolich had declined to endorse Christie in his re-election bid. At the time, Wildstein was a top official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the bridge.
At a packed press conference after Wildstein's court appearance, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman announced that Baroni and Kelly have been individually charged by a federal grand jury in a nine-count indictment unsealed Friday. Fishman maintained Wildstein and Baroni executed a political "vendetta" against Sokolich in closing the lanes. Among other charges, they are each accused of 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. Baroni and Kelly will be arraigned at 11 a.m. Monday at Newark's federal courthouse.
Outside the federal court house, Baroni's lawyer, Mike Baldassare, declared his client's innocence: "The accusations are false and when the facts come to light, Bill will be fully exonerated," said Baldassare. He said it was Wildstein who was a "criminal and a liar."
Kelly also maintained she did nothing illegal, speaking out for the first time since news of the scandal first broke 16 months ago. She told reporters at her own press conference in Livingston, N.J. on Friday that many people she once trusted have tried to discredit and humiliate her. “I will no longer allow the lies that have been said about me or my role in the George Washington Bridge issue go unchallenged,” she said. “I am not guilty of these charges. I never ordered or conspired with David Wildstein … David Wildstein is a liar.”
The mother of four also alluded to some of the emails and text messages that have been made public (including her now infamous Aug. 13 2013 email to Wildstein declaring "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." Dressed in all black, Kelly told reporters 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 Wildstein's plea deal and Baroni and Kelly's indictments affect Gov. Christie., who is considering running for president. Although he has denied any prior knowledge of the plot, the ongoing scandal has dealt a blow to Christie’s 2016 prospects, which once had looked bright. In an interview with Fox News' Bret Baier which aired Friday, he reiterated previously stated plans to announce his 2016 intentions "sometime in June," and said he would deliver a speech detailing his position on tax policy "in the coming weeks."
On Friday, Wildstein did not implicate Christie in the scheme. But at a press conference after the hearing, Alan Zegas, Wildstein’s lawyer, said that "evidence exists" to establish that Christie knew about the lane closures as they were occurring—a claim Zegas has made before. “A lot more will come out," Zegas said, adding that Wildstein "deeply regrets" what happened.
Christie, in a muscular statement, refuted any and all allegations that he was somehow complicit in the scandal. "Today's charges make clear that what I've said from day one is true," said the governor, who was in Virginia for an event with his political action committee. He added, "I had no knowledge or involvement in the planning or execution of this act. The moment I first learned of this unacceptable behavior I took action, firing staff believed to be accountable, calling for an outside investigation and agreeing to fully cooperate with all appropriate investigations, which I have done. Now 15 months later it is time to let the justice system do its job.”
Meanwhile, Wildstein, looking much thinner than when he last appeared in public, was charged with conspiracy to obtain by fraud and conspiracy against civil rights. He was released on a personal recognizance bond of $100,000, and will be sentenced Aug. 6 at 10:30 a.m. He was also told he must surrender his passport.
During the court hearing, Wildstein admitted that he, Baroni and Kelly deliberately chose to carry out the plan on the first day of the school year, in order to cause maximum disruption. He said the three agreed on a policy of “radio silence” in response to Sokolich’s pleas for help after traffic became snarled. For four mornings in September 2013, two of the three lanes at the entrance to the bridge in Fort Lee were shut down, causing massive delays.
"Public officials must use government resources for proper government purposes," Fishman said. "The indictment alleges, and Wildstein admitted, that the three defendants used Port Authority resources to exact political retribution against a public official who would not endorse the Governor for re-election, and concocted and promoted a bogus cover story to execute their plan and to cover their tracks."
Wildstein, a former political blogger who attended high school with Christie, also acknowledged that he, Baroni, and Kelly used the idea of a traffic study as a deliberate cover story, and continued to use it to conceal the truth. For months, Christie’s administration stuck to the claim that the lanes had been closed because of a traffic study.
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat who has long pressed for answers over the lane closures, said outside the court that the charges were "sickening" but added that there’s a "sense of relief that somebody stood up and took responsibility."