NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Two former allies of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are vowing to appeal after being convicted Friday in a plot to use traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge for political retaliation.
Bridget Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, a Christie appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, were found guilty Friday of all counts against them.
Kelly and Baroni were convicted of scheming with former Christie ally David Wildstein to punish Democratic Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie when he ran for re-election in 2013. Wildstein pleaded guilty.
Christie said in a statement Friday that the verdict affirmed his decision to terminate Baroni and Kelly and that the jury held them “responsible for their own conduct.”
“I’m saddened by this case and I’m saddened about the choices made by Bill Baroni, Bridget Kelly and David Wildstein. Today’s verdict does not change this for me,” Christie said in a statement. “But let me be clear once again, I had no knowledge prior to or during these lane realignments, and had no role in authorizing them. No believable evidence was presented to contradict that fact. Anything said to the contrary over the past six weeks in court is simply untrue.”
Christie added that as a former federal prosecutor, “I have respected these proceedings and refused to comment on the daily testimony from the trial. I will set the record straight in the coming days regarding the lies that were told by the media and in the courtroom.”
The verdict on charges including conspiracy, misapplying the property of the Port Authority, wire fraud and deprivation of civil rights came before the judge ruled on a request by defense attorneys to declare a mistrial in the case.
The most serious charges carry up to 20 years in prison. Kelly cried as the verdict was read, while Baroni showed no emotion. Sentencing was scheduled for Feb. 21.
“We are gratified that the jury saw the evidence the same way we did,” U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said in a news conference.
Both defendants announced plans to appeal, citing issues including disputed jury instructions. Their attorneys argued that jury instructions allowing them to convict without considering the political revenge motive were unfair.
“My client was innocent walking in there. I thought we presented the case to display her innocence, and obviously surprised and disappointed in the verdict that was returned,” Kelly’s attorney, Michael Critchley, said in a news conference as an emotional Kelly stood by his side. She did not speak.
At a second news conference, Baroni said he was “innocent of these charges.”
“I am very, very looking forward to this appeal,” he said.
Baroni’s attorney, Michael Baldassare, said the U.S. Attorney’s Office should have “had belief in their own case to charge powerful people and they did not.”
“I don’t have anything specifically to say about the governor, but I will say this: In keeping with the disgrace that was this trial, one of the things that the U.S. Attorney’s office should be ashamed of is where it decided to draw the line on who to charge and who not to charge,” Baldassare said.
Fishman said that he only charged people they could by legal standards.
“We indicted only the people who we believed that we had evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, which as you know is the constitutional standard — evidence beyond a reasonable doubt — to convict in this courthouse,” Fishman said.
Democratic state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, who helped lead a legislative effort to investigate the lane closings, said it was a terrible day for New Jersey and “a terrible day to have a spotlight on the kind of administration that was run.”
“Nothing shocks me about New Jersey anymore, but it saddens me,” she said. “I think there’s been a spotlight on the Christie administration. I said I didn’t care if he knew about it before, during or after. He set the stage and people unfortunately got suckered in.”
The federal jury of seven men and five women were presented with more than 7,000 pieces of evidence over the course of six weeks. They took five days to reach a verdict in the scandal that helped sink Christie’s Republican campaign for president.
Kelly and Baroni testified they believed the lane closings were part of a legitimate traffic study because, they said, that was what Wildstein told them. Wildstein testified that both defendants were aware of the plan to punish Sokolich.
The defense portrayed Wildstein as a liar and a dirty trickster, “the Bernie Madoff of New Jersey politics,” and argued that Christie and his inner circle had thrown the 44-year-old Kelly under the bus.
“They want that mother of four to take the fall for them. Cowards. Cowards,” Critchley said in a thundering closing argument.
One of the most damning pieces of evidence was an email in which Kelly wrote: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Then, as the four days of gridlock unfolded and Sokolich complained about children unable to get to school, she texted: “Is it wrong that I am smiling?”
On the stand, Kelly explained that she was referring to what she thought was the traffic study and expressing satisfaction that it was going well. As for why Kelly deleted the messages, her lawyer suggested she was afraid she was about to be made the scapegoat.
Christie has denied any knowledge of the plot and wasn’t charged. But Kelly, Baroni and Wildstein all testified Christie was informed about the lane closings either before or while they were going on.
Wildstein, for example, said that Christie was told about the traffic jam as it was happening and that he laughed and sarcastically joked that nothing political was going on when he learned of Sokolich’s distress over not getting his calls returned.
But it was not clear from Wildstein’s testimony whether Christie knew the bumper-to-bumper mess was manufactured for political reasons. And Kelly testified that she told Christie the lane-closings were a traffic study when she informed him of the plans about a month ahead of time.
“The testimony of a witness in this courthouse against a person or about a person who is not represented in this courtroom is not actually admissible in a subsequent proceeding,” Fishman said of the claims against Christie.
Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich reacted to Friday’s verdict, saying “to have found them not guilty would effectively encourage those that participate in this type of activity to keep doing it, that’s not acceptable.”
Siding with prosecutors, U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton told jurors they didn’t have to find that Kelly and Baroni knowingly intended to punish Sokolich in order to convict them of conspiracy.
CBS2’s Meg Baker reported that Kelly and Baroni will likely receive somewhat more prison time than Wildstein is expected to get in his plea deal, which is about two and a half years plus a fine.
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