New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s political career sustained a serious blow Friday after two of his former allies were found guilty of conspiring to shut down the nation’s busiest bridge to punish a local mayor who refused to support the governor’s reelection bid.
While Christie wasn’t charged in the “Bridgegate” trial, the case produced a steady stream of new allegations against the governor that probably will haunt him as he tries to position himself as a significant player in a potential Donald Trump administration. Christie has been a forceful advocate of the Republican presidential candidate and serves as head of Trump’s transition team.
On the first day of the trial, which began early last month, prosecutors alleged that Christie knew about the plan to tie up traffic on the George Washington Bridge as it was happening. A key witness who admitted his own role in the affair would later testify that when he told Christie about the plot, Christie laughed.
Christie has said that he did not know about the bridge plan and repeated that claim in a statement Friday. The New Jersey governor said he was “saddened” by the choices those close to him made.
“Today’s verdict does not change this for me,” he said. “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.”
But Christie, once a rising Republican star with aspirations to win the White House, has been stained by the scandal, which suggested a darker side to his tough-guy image.
“It taints his legacy,” said Brigid Harrison, a political science and law professor at Montclair State University. “No one will be able to think about Gov. Christie’s tenure in office without having it be colored by these convictions.”
Christie’s job-approval ratings are already at their lowest point. A Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll released in mid-October found that just 21 percent of residents approved of the job he was doing, down from 26 percent in June. And more than half of voters — 52 percent — said they thought there was “sufficient proof” that Christie was aware of the lane closures and didn’t try to stop them.
William E. Baroni Jr., the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Bridget Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, were both convicted of all the counts against them, the U.S. attorney’s office in New Jersey said.
During the trial, the defense for Kelly and Baroni tried to pitch them as Christie’s scapegoats. Prosecutors described them as the governor’s “loyal lieutenants” intent on helping their boss run for president.
In an interview Friday with Fox News’s Bret Baier, Trump was asked whether he still has confidence in Christie. His answer was lukewarm. “Well, I have great confidence in him,” Trump said. “I have not been following the trial. I don’t know really.” He added: “It’ll be interesting to see what happens. But I do like him very much, and I do have confidence in him, and I hope it all works out well for him.”
In the past Trump had been critical of Christie over the matter, saying last December, during the Republican primaries in which the two were rivals: “He totally knew about it.”
It is unlikely that Christie will be charged in the case, unless new evidence were to emerge to help bolster the assertions of witnesses.
Baroni and Kelly were charged with conspiring to misuse Port Authority property by fraud and conspiring to deprive people of their civil rights. The way federal prosecutors told it, the two Christie allies were seeking to punish Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, for refusing to support Christie’s reelection bid. Working with David Wildstein, a former Port Authority executive, they orchestrated a shutdown of the lanes and toll booths on the George Washington Bridge and tried to cover their tracks by claiming that the closures were part of a traffic study.
Wildstein, who pleaded guilty, testified as a witness for prosecutors in the case, claiming that he told Christie what was happening during a 9/11 memorial service, and that Christie laughed.
“We were all very relaxed,” Wildstein testified, according to an account of the trial by the New York Times. The Times said a prosecutor asked Wildstein if he was bragging, and Wildstein responded: “Very much so.”
Kelly said she told Christie of the lane closures before they happened, though she claimed she thought they were part of a legitimate traffic study that needed her boss’s approval.
NJ.com reported that she also said that officials in the governor’s inner circle were aware of what was happening and seemed unconcerned.
“It just wasn’t a big deal,” she said, according to NJ.com.
Attorneys for Kelly and Baroni did not immediately return messages seeking comment.