9/27/2016New Jersey Bridgegate Trial Turns Congestion Into A Crime
Creating congestion for political payback is charged as a federal crime in New Jersey Bridgegate trial.
Did New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) know that his underlings intentionally caused a massive traffic jam for political payback? That is the underlying question in the Bridgegate trial, which continued in its second week of testimony on Monday. Federal prosecutors insist that Christie's staff shut down local access toll lanes on the George Washington Bridge between November 9 and 13, 2013, with the intention of creating a massive traffic jam for morning commuters in Fort Lee.
Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's deputy chief of staff, and William E. Baroni Jr, deputy director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, are charged with conspiracy to misuse government property, wire fraud and the deprivation of the civil rights for Fort Lee residents. The prosecution says the lanes were shut down to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark J. Sokolich (D) for his refusal to endorse Christie in his November 2013 re-election campaign.
"To maximize the congestion and thus the punitive impact on Mayor Sokolich, the conspirators caused these lane and toll booth reductions to start on the first day of the school year in Fort Lee, without any advance notice to Mayor Sokolich, the Fort Lee chief of police, and the residents of Fort Lee," the indictment explains. "To enhance the effectiveness of their scheme... the conspirators purposely ignored communications from Mayor Sokolich, including his pleas for help, requests for information, and repeated warnings about the increased risks to public safety."
At the time, state officials insisted the toll lanes were closed to conduct a "traffic study." This explanation was undermined by emails and text messages sent in August, a few weeks before the shutdown and after the mayor's refusal to endorse Christie became known. The prosecution's key exhibit is an email from Kelly to the Port Authority which said, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." The delays ended on September 13 when Port Authority boss Patrick Foye pulled the plug on the operation, over Baroni's objection.
Baroni and Kelly were were fired in December 2013 and January 2014, respectively. They were later arrested and released on $150,000 bonds. Baroni and Kelly maintain their innocence, with Baroni seeking release of records from the governor's office to prove who was really in charge.
"In fighting Mr. Baroni's subpoena, Gibson Dunn [the law firm representing Christie] relies on the failed tactics of Richard Nixon," Baroni's lawyer, Michael Baldassare, wrote. "President Nixon's tapes were not immune from a subpoena. Neither is Governor Christie's phone."
David Wildstein, Baroni's deputy, has pleaded guilty to the charges that had a potential of 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. In return for a lighter sentence, Wildstein agreed to testify that the governor's office had a program to use state resources to secure endorsements from local officials.
Jurors this week will continue to file into the Martin Luther King US Courthouse in Newark each morning as the case progresses.