The former official of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who dreamed up a scheme for using traffic problems in Fort Lee to punish that borough’s mayor for not endorsing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s re-election, David Wildstein, 55, was sentenced today to three years’ probation but no jail time.
Wildstein, 55, the former director of Interstate Capital Projects at the Port Authority, pleaded guilty on May 1, 2015, before U.S. District Judge Susan D. Wigenton to an information charging him with two counts of conspiracy for his role in the scheme.
Wigenton imposed the probation sentence today in Newark federal court.
Wildstein, William E. Baroni Jr., 45, former deputy executive director of the Port Authority, and Bridget Anne Kelly, 44, former deputy chief of staff to Christie, engaged in a scheme to manufacture traffic problems in Fort Lee by reducing from three to one the number of local access lanes to the upper level of the George Washington Bridge.
Baroni and Kelly were both convicted at trial for their respective roles in the scheme. On March 29, 2017, Wigenton sentenced Baroni to 24 months in prison and Kelly to 19 months in prison.
Meanwhile, one of the lawyers who shared at least $15 million in billings paid by taxpayers for defending Christie, Christopher Wray, appeared before a Senate panel weighing whether he she be confirmed as FBI director, to replace James Comey, who was fired by President Trump on 9 May.
Wray rejected a personal loyalty oath to the president and refused to characterize as a “witch hunt” the investigation into allegations that a hostile foreign country interfered in the presidential election, but since Trump announced his intention to nominate Wray as FBI Director on June 7, 2017, there have been few questions about his actions as Christie’s personal attorney during the Bridgegate scandal.
“As we said in our motion to the Court, although David Wildstein was the architect of this criminal scheme and a force behind its cover-up, he accepted responsibility for his actions and admitted his guilt,” Acting U.S. Attorney William E. Fitzpatrick said. “His timely, complete and truthful cooperation was extraordinary and essential to the successful prosecution of Mr. Baroni and Ms. Kelly. The law requires the government and the court to take the nature and extent of Mr. Wildstein’s cooperation into account in fashioning an appropriate sentence.”
Christie’s ability to avoid criminal prosecution did not protect his political standing. The scandal wiped out his ability to compete effectively in the 2016 presidential campaign and he currently holds a new record as New Jersey’s most unpopular governor, with 15 percent of poll respondents approving of his job performance and 80 percent expressing disapproval.
In 2014, the Wall Street Journal published photos showing Christie and Wildstein together on the third day of the closures, but officials refused to pursue charges against him for the traffic jams. A citizen’s complaint filed against Christie by Bill Brennan was scuttled by employees of Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir Grewal, who recused himself because he serves at the pleasure of the governor.
Officials sidestepped the failure to hold Christie accountable for crimes committed by his appointees and instead patted themselves on the back for convicting three of the conspirators.
“This investigation has conclusively established that the conspirators, William Baroni, Bridget Anne Kelly, and David Wildstein misused their government positions to harm the very members of the public they were hired to serve,” Inspector General Michael Nestor of the Port Authority, Office of Inspector General, said. “By doing so, they put the interests of a few before the greater good of the public. They engaged in a cover-up of their scheme, and caused false information to be distributed to Port Authority employees, other government officials, and the public. The Port Authority Office of Inspector General and its professional staff continue to fulfill its mission of rooting out corruption, at no matter what level it may exist within the Port Authority. We commend and thank our law enforcement partners for their cooperative effort and tireless work.”
“Combating public corruption is one of the FBI’s top criminal investigative priorities. It strikes not only at the heart of good government, but it also jeopardizes the security of our communities and our nation,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Timothy Gallagher, Newark Division, said. “Public corruption erodes public confidence and diminishes the strength of our democracy. Today’s sentencing highlights our commitment to aggressively pursue those who engage in unethical and corrupt practices.”
In August 2013, after Kelly confirmed that Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich would not be endorsing Christie for re-election in November 2013, Baroni, Kelly, and Wildstein decided to punish the mayor by causing significant traffic problems in Fort Lee under the false pretense of a traffic study.
From the morning of Sept. 9, 2013, to Sept. 13, 2013, the conspirators caused the local access lanes to be reduced so that only one toll booth, instead of the usual three, was accessible to the approach to the bridge for local traffic traveling through Fort Lee.
To maximize the congestion and the punitive impact on Sokolich, Baroni, Kelly, and Wildstein caused the lane and toll booth reductions closings to start on the first day of the school year without any advance notice to Mayor Sokolich, the Fort Lee chief of police or borough residents.
The access reductions resulted in significant traffic in Fort Lee, for motorists intending to access the George Washington Bridge from local lanes, and for residents, whose streets were choked with traffic.
The conspirators agreed to disregard any inquiries from Sokolich and other Fort Lee officials about the lane and toll booth reductions. They purposely ignored communications from the Mayor, including his pleas for help, requests for information, and repeated warnings about the increased risks to public safety.
The conspirators concocted and promoted a sham story that the lane reductions were for a traffic study. They created and advanced this cover story so they could use Port Authority property, including the time and services of unwitting agency personnel and other resources, to implement the lane and toll booth reductions and conceal their true punitive purpose.
In addition to probation, Wigenton sentenced Wildstein to 500 hours of community service, ordered restitution of $14,314 and fined him $10,000.
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