NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Two former aides to Gov. Chris Christie were sentenced to prison Wednesday for their role in the 2013 George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal.
As CBS2’s Meg Baker reported, U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton had harsh words for Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly as she sentenced them in federal court in Newark.
Kelly, 44, was sentenced to 18 months and Baroni, 45, was sentenced to two years after they were convicted for their roles in the so-called “Bridgegate” case. Both were also sentenced to a year of probation, and they must also serve 500 hours of community service.
Kelly and Baroni were convicted last November on counts including wire fraud, conspiracy and misusing the bridge for improper purposes. They had sought probation.
Baroni and Kelly “used their positions in the government, used government resources to settle a petty political score, and in doing so they breached their duty to the citizens of New Jersey and they showed a callous disregard for the welfare of the people that they were supposed to be serving,” Acting New Jersey U.S. Attorney Bill Fitzpatrick said, calling the sentences “fair” and “reasonable.”
The government’s star witness, David Wildstein, testified that he and the co-defendants plotted to cause gridlock to retaliate against the Democratic mayor of nearby Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie’s re-election.
Fort Lee was plunged into gridlock for four days in September 2013. Coming up on four years later, the abuse of power is still fresh on the minds of drivers, CBS2’s Jessica Layton reported.
“The traffic was crazy,” one driver said.
“I thought it was dangerous to people on the bridge and it never should have happened,” said Maddie Holdy of Wallington, New Jersey.
Text messages and emails produced at trial showed Mayor Mark Sokolich’s increasingly desperate pleas for help being ignored by Kelly and Baroni.
Baroni, who had been Christie’s appointee as deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, walked into the federal courthouse the same way he did each day of his trial — smiling. But inside, he faced the stark reality of prison time.
“I think as Judge Wigenton said, this is a case about an abuse of power,” Fitzpatrick said. “When government officials serve their own self-interest – whether politically, whether financially, at the expense of the people they’re supposed to serve – the government is going to be here to investigate.”
Before his sentence was handed down, Baroni told Wigenton he “let a lot of people down who believed in me and relied on me.”
“Most of all I let Mark Sokolich down. That was my choice and my responsibility. And I made the wrong choice,” Baroni said. “I was wrong and I am truly sorry, and I’ve waited three years to say that.”
Sokolich said that the sentence was fair and that he hopes Baroni “gets through things and resumes his life” after he serves his term.
“I’m not a grudge kind of guy. It’s not really in my DNA,” he said. “I will tell you I’ve moved on with this. My responsibility is to the taxpayers of Fort Lee. To devote my energies to venom and dislike, it’s not my style.”
Wigenton said Baroni misled a state legislative committee when he said the traffic study was legitimate, and later misled the jury at his trial with the same contention.
“It was completely intended to wreak havoc,” she said. “It only served a punitive purpose. You clearly knew, and know today, that it was not” legitimate.
The judge went on to say Baroni showed no remorse for the people of New Jersey, and left the citizens of Fort Lee trapped by a vendetta.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes said that Baroni’s time as a state lawmaker, lawyer and school teacher gave him the experience and judgment to conduct himself ethically.
“But when Bill Baroni was put to the test and made a choice, he chose to abuse his official power. And then he chose to lie about it,” Cortes said, calling Baroni’s conduct “brazen, calculated, and a mean-spirited abuse of power” that had “real-life consequences on the people he was supposed to serve.’
But Baroni’s defense attorneys touted what they called his impeccable reputation as they pushed for leniency, CBS2’s Dave Carlin reported.
The judge took into account more than 100 letters sent in support of Baroni from friends, family, colleagues, and even former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey.
“Other than this matter, his record in public service has been extraordinary,” said defense attorney Carlos Ortiz. “Bill is looking forward to his appeal.”
Ortiz said Baroni has worked to make things right with Sokolich.
“What he did was a mistake in not returning calls or emails to Mayor Sokolich,” Ortiz said. “He apologized to him and the citizens of Fort Lee and everyone else he let down in this episode of his life.”
The judge heard pleas for punishments ranging from no time behind bars, supported by numerous emotional letters from friends and family, to three years in prison.
Kelly, Christie’s former chief of staff, maintained her innocence after the sentencing Wednesday.
“It’s a difficult day,” Kelly said. “I want to assure my kids and others that this fight is not over and I will not be a scapegoat.”
There were also dozens of letters of support for Kelly, including one from her 17-year-old son who wrote, in part, “not one part of me believes that she is truly guilty,” Carlin reported.
Kelly’s now infamous email reading, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” left a lasting impression during the trial. So did a text message reading, “Is it wrong that I’m smiling?”
At the hearing Wednesday, Kelly wiped her eyes with a tissue when she was sentenced after Baroni and apologized, saying she never intended to cause harm.
“I accept responsibility for the tone of my emails and texts,” she said. “My emails and texts were disrespectful and I am absolutely embarrassed by them. They don’t reflect who I am.”
In November, both defense attorneys insisted Kelly and Baroni were wrongfully convicted.
“I said at the time of my opening and in my summations that I felt she was a scapegoat and I feel now she is a scapegoat,” Kelly’s attorney Michael Critchley said.
Baroni has said he is “innocent of these charges” while his 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.”
In a statement after the sentencing, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) said: This was a serious violation of public trust… from the very top levels of state government ….the plan to ignore the Fort Lee mayor’s repeated calls for help, was nauseating.”
There was no comment late Wednesday afternoon from Christie.
Earlier Wednesday, Christie said the judge would do what is appropriate.
“It’s not my role or anybody else’s role other than the judge in the courtroom to pass sentence on people who have committed crimes,” Christie said on NBC’s “Today.”
The scandal derailed Christie’s presidential aspirations and likely cost him a chance to be then-GOP nominee Donald Trump’s running mate.
Questions remain over when, and how much, Christie knew about the plan to realign access lanes from Fort Lee to the bridge’s upper level.
At the time of the traffic jams, Baroni was overseeing Wildstein as deputy executive director.
Throughout the trial, Baroni and Kelly cast blame on Wildstein, swaying he orchestrated the plan to go “radio silent” on Sokolich when the Fort Lee mayor rang the alarm that schoolchildren and first responders were stuck in the manufactured traffic jam.
Baroni testified that Wildstein was viewed as Christie’s enforcer, and several Port Authority officials testified that he was almost universally disliked at the agency.
Wildstein, a former political blogger and classmate of Christie’s, was hired as the director of interstate capital projects at the Port Authority. The position was created for Wildstein, according to testimony.
Christie was not charged with any wrongdoing. But his version of events, that he was not aware that anyone in his office was involved until months after the fact, was contradicted by testimony from Baroni, Kelly and Wildstein.
In addition to focusing on dozens of text messages and emails exchanged between the co-conspirators, testimony at the trial painted an unflattering portrait of the Christie administration’s modus operandi.
Christie was described as cursing and throwing a water bottle at Kelly over an apparently innocent question and another time leaving a profane and threatening voicemail for a county officeholder who had angered him.
Wildstein testified that Christie’s subordinates used the Port Authority as a source of political favors for Democratic politicians whose endorsements he sought.
Former U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman recently said just because some people were not charged in the crime does not mean they were not involved.
Both Kelly and Baroni already have appeals pending, and they will remain out of prison on an appeal bond until their appeals are resolved. The judge set a date of Sept. 29 for them to report to prison, but that is only a “control” date, as both will remain on bail throughout the appeals process.
CBS2’s Layton stopped by Kelly’s home in Ramsey late Wednesday. Kelly said she had nothing more to say.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)