Questions on Christie role swirl after trial
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Two former aides to Gov. Chris Christie were convicted Friday of causing traffic jams for political revenge near the nation’s busiest bridge, a verdict that raised anew questions about why the Republican governor and his inner circle escaped prosecution.
Bridget Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, Christie’s appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, were found guilty of all counts against them. Kelly cried as the verdict was read; Baroni showed no emotion. Both defendants announced plans to appeal.
Testimony during the seven-week trial contradicted Christie’s statements about when he knew about the four days of gridlock in the town of Fort Lee in September 2013. The traffic jams were aimed at retaliating against Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie’s re-election, prosecutors alleged.
Other testimony described some of Christie’s top advisers and confidants either knowing about the plan ahead of time or soon afterward, and being aware of the purported political motivation, well before Christie told reporters in December 2013 that none of his staff was involved.
Baroni’s attorney, Michael Baldassare, called the case “a disgrace” and said the U.S. attorney’s office should be “ashamed” of where it drew the line on who to charge.
“They should have had belief in their own case to charge powerful people and they did not,” Baldassare said Friday.
Baroni and Kelly were indicted last year. Also charged was former Port Authority official David Wildstein, who pleaded guilty and testified against them.
U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman declined to say Friday whether any of the testimony could lead to charges against Christie or others.
“Anybody can reach whatever conclusions they want about the strength of the evidence and about whether the evidence of anyone else’s involvement was in the hands of the government or came from the defense,” he said. “In May 2015, the evidence that we had was sufficient to indict and convict Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni and that’s the indictment we asked the grand jury to return.”
Christie said Friday that the verdict affirmed his decision to terminate Baroni and Kelly and that the jury held them responsible “for their own conduct.”
He repeated his assertions he had no knowledge of the plot and said he would “set the record straight” soon about “the lies told by the media and in the courtroom.”
“I had no knowledge prior to or during these lane realignments, and had no role in authorizing them,” Christie said. “No believable evidence was presented to contradict that fact. Anything said to the contrary over the past six weeks in court is simply untrue.”
At the time the scandal unfolded three years ago, Christie was considered a top GOP presidential contender and was on the verge of a runaway re-election victory to demonstrate his crossover appeal as a White House candidate.
Christie ultimately dropped out of the presidential race after a poor showing in the New Hampshire primary and said recently that the scandal probably influenced Donald Trump’s decision not to pick him as his running mate.
Christie now is a top Trump adviser and has campaigned for him.
Christie was expected to campaign for Trump in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire this weekend.
A message left with the Trump campaign Friday wasn’t immediately returned.