A onetime ally and former high school classmate of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pleaded guilty Friday, while two other former members of Christie’s inner circle were indicted, in connection with an intentional 2013 traffic jam leading to the George Washington Bridge.
David Wildstein, who as an official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey had ordered the closure of two of the bridge’s toll lanes, confirmed to a federal judge Friday that he closed the lanes to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, Democrat Mark Sokolich, who declined to endorse the Republican governor’s reelection bid.
Indicted Friday were Christie’s former deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly and William E. Baroni Jr., a top political appointee at the Port Authority. Wildstein said he had conspired with the two to engineer the traffic jam and falsely claim it was part of a traffic study.
U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman said he did not anticipate further charges related to the traffic jam. But a federal investigation into other matters sparked by the bridge inquiry continues.
Fishman said that the three officials “callously victimized the people of Fort Lee, who were just trying to get to school, go to work or travel wherever else they needed to go.”
Fishman said the plan was hatched in August 2013, after Sokolich withheld his endorsement, but it was not implemented until early September when the Christie allies knew the start of school would worsen gridlock. As part of the scheme, prosecutors allege that the three ignored Sokolich’s increasingly desperate entreaties about the traffic and lied to the media.
Christie has maintained that he was not given advance warning when two toll lanes of the busy bridge were closed in September 2013. An internal investigation that he commissioned cleared Christie of personal wrongdoing in the episode but found that the closure had been purposeful and politically motivated. Fishman declined to comment on those claims.
In a statement, Christie said Friday that the charges confirmed what he has long said about the incident.
“I had no knowledge or involvement in the planning or execution of this act,” he said. “The moment I first learned of this unacceptable behavior I took action, firing staff believed to be accountable, calling for an outside investigation and agreeing to fully cooperate with all appropriate investigations, which I have done,” he said.
Still, fallout from the scandal has significantly deflated Christie’s presidential prospects, which were extremely bright two years ago after he easily won reelection in a deep blue state and was encouraged to seek the White House by some of the GOP’s biggest donors. In the painful aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, he cultivated an image as a hands-on, can-do chief executive.
A recent Quinnipiac University poll shows 56 percent of New Jersey voters disapproving of Christie’s performance as governor, with 38 percent approving — Christie’s lowest ratings ever in that poll.
Christie and his advisers breathed a sigh of relief Friday, saying that the indictments bring finality to the controversy that had stunted his presidential campaign. “It’s been the elephant in the room,” one adviser said, but also saying, “It’s not like anyone’s doing backflips.”
Christie’s advisers acknowledged that he still has a lot of work to do to persuade voters and donors to give him a second look. Over the next three weeks, Christie is planning several trips to New Hampshire, where he will hold town-hall style gatherings, as well as private meetings with prospective donors. These events will help him gauge whether he has a viable path forward in the presidential race. He plans to make his decision about whether to launch a campaign late this month or in early June.
But Alan Zegas, Wildstein’s attorney, has said “evidence exists” that Christie knew about the closures, despite his denials. Speaking to reporters outside the U.S. District Court in Newark on Friday, Zegas stood by that claim, indicating that “there is a lot more that will come out.” Fishman repeatedly refused to comment on who else, including Christie, may have known about the plot to clog traffic.
As the long-running scandal came to a head in New Jersey, Christie was in the Washington region, delivering a speech Friday morning to the politically connected Northern Virginia Technology Council in McLean.
He had been scheduled to attend an afternoon fundraiser for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), but that event was canceled because Hogan is dealing with the aftermath of unrest in Baltimore.
In 2013, a legislative inquiry revealed Wildstein received an e-mail from Kelly indicating that it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” the town at the foot of the bridge affected most by the closures. The e-mail exchange, which first suggested that the closure had been orchestrated, prompted the 16-month investigation into the incident that culminated in charges Friday.
Wildstein pleaded guilty to two criminal counts, misusing federal property and denying Fort Lee residents their civil rights. Baroni and Kelly were each charged with seven felony counts in a joint indictment, including wire fraud.
Kelly quickly launched a Web site to appeal for donations to a legal defense fund. At a news conference, she said it was “ludicrous” to suggest that she was the only person in the governor’s office with knowledge of the scheme. She also said she was embarrassed by the tone of her e-mails but insisted she is not guilty of criminal activity.
“I will fight relentlessly to clear myself of these charges and will work to regain my reputation and restore a sense of normalcy for my children,” she said.
Baroni’s legal team released a statement calling Wildstein a “criminal and liar” who had falsely led Baroni to think that a legitimate traffic study was underway on the bridge; they said he is not guilty of the charges.
Although the criminal investigation began with the bridge incident, it has broadened to include an investigation of the activities of the Port Authority and allegations that Christie’s staffers had leveraged public resources as political tools in other ways. Those investigations are thought to be ongoing.
Senior New Jersey Democrats put the blame for the incident at Christie’s feet.
“Every organization behaves in a fashion in concert with the leader of that organization,” said New Jersey Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski (D), who led legislative investigations into Christie’s staff. “When we see a governor who routinely told people to sit down and shut up, who routinely engaged in name-calling and intimidation, you can see how this kind of behavior fit right in and perhaps was even condoned.”
Wisniewski said his committee will reexamine statements made to legislators under oath by a series of Christie aides who insisted that the traffic jam was caused by a traffic study.
Beyond his fading first-tier status in GOP circles, Christie also has seen his grip on power in New Jersey loosening — rapidly losing support among a handful of prominent home-state donors and power brokers who are either hesitant to back him or shifting allegiance to former Florida governor Jeb Bush.
New Jersey state Sen. Joseph M. Kyrillos, chairman of Christie’s 2009 gubernatorial campaign and a longtime personal friend, bolted last month to Bush’s camp. New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, a onetime Christie booster, attended a major Bush fundraiser in Miami last weekend.
Speaking in March at the state Capitol, Kyrillos lambasted Christie’s management of the Port Authority: “Rogue managers in place . . . toll increases: outrageous. Bridgegate: outrageous. Outrageous.” He added, “Biggest bridge in the world. An embarrassment to everybody, including the governor, who said as much at the outset.”
There have been other bumps along the way. Christie’s remarks about child vaccinations on a trip earlier this year to London drew scathing criticism and alarmed some of his supporters. He had to make a series of calls to assure contributors that he supports vaccination for diseases such as measles. His embrace of wealthy Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and a New York Times report on his penchant for private planes and luxury hotels made headlines.
Embattled but nonetheless determined to rebuild his political standing, Christie has moved aggressively in the past year to regain his footing with party leaders and activists, traveling frequently to early primary states and in 2014 raising more than $100 million for GOP candidates as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
Christie’s political team, which once envisioned a robust early campaign, has narrowed its focus mostly to New Hampshire, where Christie has held a series of town-hall meetings meant to reintroduce him to skeptical Republicans and regenerate some of the electricity that was a hallmark of his town-hall meetings in New Jersey in his first term, when his loud clashes with public employees became popular on YouTube.
Nationally, Christie still counts several financiers as allies, including Kenneth G. Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot, and Ray Washburne, a Dallas real estate developer leading the fundraising push for Christie’s political-action committee.
But the lane closures continued to haunt his comeback efforts. In December, he was interviewed by federal investigators at Drumthwacket, the official residence of the New Jersey governor, before he traveled to Iowa, home to the first-in-the-nation Republican presidential caucuses.
While shaking hands at a Manchester, N.H., restaurant this month, Christie was teased by Buck Mercier, 69, who told the governor that he made sure when he heard of Christie’s visit that “the bridges were going to be open.” Christie smiled. “Which direction is the bridge?” he asked. “I’ll make sure it’s open.”