The Bridgegate trial has already delivered a devastating blow to Gov. Chris Christie’s career — but now two of his former aides’ futures hang in the balance.
Bridget Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, the former top New Jersey official at the Port Authority, face nine counts related to the lane closures from Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge in September 2013.
Much of their defense revolves around David Wildstein, a former Port Authority official with ties to Christie who already pleaded guilty for role in the scandal.
He testified against Baroni and Kelly under a cooperation agreement with prosecutors.
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The government alleges that the trio orchestrated the lane closures as political punishment against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for declining to endorse Christie’s reelection.
As a federal jury in Newark prepares to listen to closing arguments on Thursday morning, here's a roundup of key aspects of the case likely to be the focus of deliberations:
Legitimate traffic study, or political punishment?
Both Kelly and Baroni took the stand in their own defense and said the same thing — they believed a legitimate traffic study was underway during the four days of gridlock in Fort Lee.
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Wildstein, both said, duped them into thinking that the study was the first step towards easing gridlock on the main toll lanes to the bridge — a triumph that Christie could take credit for.
But the government introduced ample evidence that a traffic study was nothing more than a cover story, as Wildstein put it.
The Port Authority had never conducted a traffic study as it supposedly did in Fort Lee, giving commuters and local authorities no notice.
Both Kelly and Baroni also received pleading messages from the mayor of Fort Lee about an “urgent matter of public safety” and his sense that the gridlock was the result of someone being “mad” at him — but neither did anything.
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Is David Wildstein trustworthy?
The political punishment scheme was spelled out in vivid detail by Wildstein over eight days of testimony. But Wildstein is a problematic narrator.
By his own admission, Wildstein lied frequently throughout his career as a political operative and anonymous blogger on New Jersey politics.
An old colleague at the Port Authority described him as "a cancer.”
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The executive director of the authority, Pat Foye, said Wildstein was “abusive and untrustworthy” and "hated by hundreds, if not thousands of people" within the agency.
Wildstein described an arrangement in which Kelly gave him orders to close the lanes, which he took to be coming from the "one constituent" he served, Christie.
Baroni — Wildstein’s boss on the Port Authority flow chart — then approved the lane closure plan and helped him concoct the traffic study “cover story,” Wildstein said.
But Baroni and Kelly aren’t the only ones saying Wildstein is a liar. Christie and Gov. Cuomo say Wildstein also lied under oath about their involvement.
The jury faces a difficult task deciding how much weight to give Wildstein’s testimony.
But the government’s case against Baroni and Kelly doesn’t rest solely on Wildstein.
Bill Baroni’s many misstatements
In November 2013, Baroni testified before a New Jersey legislative committee about the lane closures, insisting that a vague “communication breakdown” had led to the gridlock caused by a traffic study.
Baroni testified during the trial that he believed he was telling New Jersey pols the truth — though the government introduced evidence available to him at the time that a political revenge plot was afoot.
Baroni was certainly no stranger to political beefs. He’d delivered harsh messages for Christie before. Baroni also was aware of the governor's feud with Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop around the time of the lane closures, as well, according to testimony.
Baroni texted Wildstein on September 1, 2013 inquiring about the first day of school in Jersey City, asking “anything we can do?” Wildstein replied, “probably not.”
That day had significance: the first day of lane closures in Fort Lee — a mere eight days later — fell on the first day of school.
Exactly when Baroni decided Wildstein had lied to him about the traffic study was unclear. Text messages between Baroni and Wildstein remained friendly In December, when Baroni knew he was likely a goner at the Port Authority.
A jury could interpret their communications after the lane closures as those of two co-conspirators.
Bridget Kelly’s long paper trail
Kelly must overcome the most devastating piece of evidence in the case: her August 2013 email to Wildstein, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
But that’s far from the only damning communications of hers shown to the jury. After Wildstein told Kelly about complaints that kids couldn't get to school in Fort Lee because of the gridlock, she texted him, “Is it wrong that I’m smiling? I feel bad about the kids. I guess.”
In another email, she simply wrote, “Good,” when told of the traffic woes.
Kelly insisted those messages were misinterpreted.
Testimony of Kelly's former colleagues in Trenton also detailed her increasingly desperate efforts to protect herself as the scandal became public. One colleague, Christina Renna, said Kelly asked her to delete an incriminating email and seemed "nervous"
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The key to Kelly and Baroni’s defense is the rogues gallery of Christie cronies higher on the totem pole.
According to trial testimony, some of them knew about the lane closure scheme before it was implemented. Others knew after the fact, but kept mum as Christie maintained publicly that no one on his staff was involved in any political retaliation plot.
Among the New Jersey power players closely involved in the scandal, but not on trial: Christie’s then-chief of staff, Kevin O’Dowd; his then-chief counsel, Charlie McKenna; his top outside strategist, Mike DuHaime; his top press liaison, Michael Drewniak; and his campaign manager, Bill Stepien.
All featured prominently throughout the trial and, according to testimony, were mired in an astounding assortment of lies.
Baroni and Kelly hope that atmosphere of intrigue can foster reasonable doubt among the jury.
Chris Christie’s long — and wide — shadow
The most prominent figure not on trial is the governor himself.
Christie has maintained he knew nothing about the lane closures before they were implemented or while they were underway. But Kelly testified she told Christie about the supposed Fort Lee traffic study a month before the lanes were reduced.
Baroni testified that Wildstein discussed the ongoing traffic study with Christie at a 9/11 Memorial event on September 11, 2013, the third of four days of gridlock. Wildstein offered a different account, testifying that Baroni informed Christie of the gridlock, which was political in nature. Christie "laughed" at the traffic, Wildstein said.
Christie's statements in a December 2013 press conferences that his staff knew nothing about the closures were also contradicted by testimony by several of his top staffers on the stand.
Christie — whose approval rating in New Jersey is at a historically low 26% among New Jersey voters — was portrayed as a belligerent bully throughout the trial. Baroni and Kelly hope that the public's disgust with Christie, as well as his alleged conduct in the Bridgegate scandal, leads a jury to reject the government's case.
Gov. Cuomo’s involvement
Christie isn’t the only major political figure mired in the Bridgegate affair.
Gov. Cuomo was also reeled into the scandal through the bi-state Port Authority. Cuomo told Foye, the head of the Port Authority, to "lay off" an inquiry into the lane closures and approve a bogus statement to the press about a traffic study, according to Wildstein.
Cuomo vehemently denied that account.
But the embarrassment didn’t end there: Baroni testified that he and Christie laughed about Cuomo's arrival to the 9/11 Memorial event in a motorcycle convoy with Billy Joel.
The questions surrounding the most powerful men in New Jersey and New York were magnified by the dysfunction of the Port Authority, which they are supposed to oversee together.
Evidence showed that the agency, at the time of the Bridgegate affair, was rife with backstabbing, political tricks and petty rivalries between the New Jersey and New York “sides.”
Rarely did the concerns of the commuting public appear to be a concern among the Port Authority elite. Such mismanagement creates an environment in which there’s a lot of blame to go around. It will be the task of a jury to sort out if anyone will be punished for it.
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