photo by Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen, courtesy the New Jersey National Guard
It’s been more than two years since associates of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie started trying to sell the public their version of what happened in Fort Lee.
For two of Christie’s former allies, that story is now over.
Bill Baroni is the former deputy executive director at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and Bridget Anne Kelly is Christie’s former deputy chief of staff. Last week, jurors found both guilty on all counts in the high-profile federal “Bridgegate” trial. (David Wildstein, Christie’s one-time political ally and the self-confessed architect of the Fort Lee scheme, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud and conspiracy against civil rights last year.) Though the jurors spent a week in deliberations, the verdict always seemed inevitable.
It is no surprise that the preposterous, cooked-up story of a “traffic study” conducted in Fort Lee during the first week of school, and shortly before the governor’s re-election campaign, did not persuade a jury. I am not sure it could have persuaded a panel of a dozen kindergarteners, especially if they had been stuck sitting on a school bus in Fort Lee.
What was a surprise was that the two defendants took the stand to proclaim their own naivete in supposedly believing this sappy concoction. Both Baroni and Kelly testified that Wildstein deceived them into believing that they really were just conducting a traffic study.
Jurors plainly did not accept that Kelly and Baroni were as dumb as they claimed to be, or that the failure of anyone to respond to the panicked phone calls from Fort Lee’s mayor, Mark Sokolich, was because they had inadvertently muted their phones’ ringers rather than following Wildstein’s instruction to maintain “radio silence.”
Now that they are convicted, Kelly and Baroni find themselves in a box. Had they not testified, there is a good chance their sentencing would have been delayed until after the potential indictment and trial of Christie himself. Now, whatever happens next will most likely happen without them. By denying under oath that they, and Christie, had any political motivations in creating the Fort Lee traffic mess, Kelly and Baroni have pretty much made themselves useless as witnesses against their one-time boss, who is the next obvious target for prosecutors.
Christie continues to claim he had no involvement in or knowledge of the traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge, either in advance or during the four-day period in which it was happening. He released a statement after the verdict to that effect, adding that he plans to “set the record straight in coming days regarding the lies that were told by the media and in the courtroom.”
Outside the courthouse after Baroni and Kelly’s trial, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman declined to state a reason that Christie had not been charged, other than by clarifying his office brought cases against those who they could prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” broke the law. Whether this means charges against Christie are a matter of “not yet” or “not at all” is not clear. But at a minimum numerous witnesses, including Wildstein, have contradicted the governor’s claims of ignorance.
Over a year ago, I suggested that the taint of the Fort Lee scandal meant Christie’s presidential aspirations were likely dead on arrival. Even if he never faces criminal charges, Christie’s political career – or what’s left of it – is irrevocably tied to this incident and its fallout. “No one will be able to think about Gov. Christie’s tenure in office without having it be colored by these convictions,” Brigid Harrison, a political science and law professor at Montclair State University, observed to The Washington Post. As of mid-October, one poll showed Christie’s job approval ratings at less than 25 percent.
Losing Kelly and Baroni as potential witnesses against Christie makes the job of prosecutors a bit harder if they decide to go after the governor, but if they make that call, they will probably find ample alternative evidence. In the meantime, I expect that Kelly and Baroni will spend at least some time behind bars; sentencing is scheduled for February. Their lawyers have said they will appeal last week’s verdict.
Their defense testimony was really the only surprise in the depressing six-week trial. It was hardly news, for instance, that the Port Authority is a political “goody bag” for the governors of those two states. Wildstein’s description of how the Port Authority turned to the Christie administration for approval of patronage jobs and other favors, allowing the governor to take credit for handing out the goodies in question, may have been depressing, but no one who had been paying any attention to the agency could have been shocked.
Famously, during their time at the Port Authority Wildstein and Baroni believed they had a single constituent – one who resided in the governor’s mansion in Trenton. For anyone who has spent time in the Port Authority’s decrepit New York airports, that revelation is no surprise. If nothing else, it is obvious the Port Authority certainly doesn’t consider people using those airports to be their constituents.
New Jersey legislators and federal prosecutors did good work in ending the Christie administration’s cover-up. But this opera is not over just yet. The fat lady, so to speak, has yet to sing.