Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly, former allies of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, are headed to prison for their roles in a politically motivated plot to create traffic jams near the George Washington Bridge in the scandal known as Bridgegate.
A federal judge rejected their requests for probation after prosecutors called the four days of gridlock a "stunningly brazen and vindictive use of power" to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, for failing to endorse Christie's re-election in 2013. Baroni was sentenced to two years in prison, while Kelly got 18 months.
The sentencing caps a scandal that burst onto the national political scene in January 2014, just as Christie was trying to leverage his landslide re-election in 2013 into the Republican nomination for president. Christie's popularity steadily sunk as the scandal swamped his administration, and testimony at the six-week trial depicted him as a profane bully. Christie, who said he wasn't aware of the plot at the time it was executed, suggested that Bridgegate played a role in Donald Trump not choosing him as his running mate.
Baroni, a 45-year-old lawyer and former state senator, and Kelly, 44, were convicted of conspiracy and fraud on Nov. 4. Both have said they will appeal after testifying at trial that they were not guilty.
"I regret more than anything that I allowed myself to get caught up in this," Baroni said in court Wednesday. "I let the people of Fort Lee down. They deserved someone in my position to try to stop it. I took the wrong guidance, listened to the wrong people. I was wrong. I am truly sorry."
In contrast, David Samson, once the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, got probation and house arrest for pressuring United Airlines to offer a flight to an airport near his South Carolina weekend home. In that case, U.S. District Judge Jose Ligares said at the March 6 sentencing that Samson, who pleaded guilty, "is entitled to credit for a lifetime of good work and service." Samson will help a nonprofit set up a soul-food restaurant to foster jobs training and employment while he spends a year confined to his South Carolina estate.
In addition to the prison term, Baroni was fined $7,500, ordered to pay $14,314 in restitution and directed to serve 500 hours of community service while on probation. Kelly was also sentenced to 500 hours of community service while on probation. She was ordered to pay $14,314 in restitution and fined $2,800.
Baroni served as Christie's top executive at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, while Kelly was a deputy chief of staff to the governor. Both testified at trial that they were duped by David Wildstein, Baroni's former right-hand man who pleaded guilty. Wildstein admitted he orchestrated the plot, and he testified as the prosecution's star witness about how the lane closings snarled traffic and ensnared commuters, ambulances and school buses. He hasn't been sentenced.
"While you attempted to cast David Wildstein as the evil mastermind, you, too, played a pivotal role," U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton told Baroni. She called his actions "an outrageous display of abuse of power."
In seeking leniency, Baroni and his lawyers submitted 122 testimonial letters citing his public service as a state lawmaker, role as a mentor to dozens of people, and advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. He also cited his work as an informant to the Federal Bureau of Investigation a decade ago on corruption in Trenton.
While Baroni said he is full of remorse, prosecutors slammed both Baroni as lacking true regret because of the way he lied to jurors and a state legislative committee in 2013.
"Mr. Baroni's conduct was brazen, calculated and a mean-spirited abuse of power," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes. "He corrupted his office to send a petty, vindictive political message."
Fort Lee officials said the the gridlock impeded the search for a missing 4-year-old and the response to a cardiac arrest. During the gridlock, Baroni repeatedly failed to return frantic phone calls from Mayor Mark Sokolich, who sought an explanation. The judge faulted Baroni for that plan of "radio silence" and the ensuing coverup.
"It is extremely difficult to fathom that on Sept. 9, 10, 11, and 12 of 2013, you did not respond to Mayor Sokolich," Wigenton said. "People were trapped in traffic in some senseless political vendetta."
About a month before the lane closings, Kelly sent Wildstein an infamous email that said "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." The single mother of four said in her court filing that imprisonment would cause immense harm to her family.
Kelly and Baroni were convicted of conspiracy, fraud and civil-rights charges. Prosecutors said in court papers that Baroni and Kelly faced between 37 and 46 months in prison under advisory sentencing guidelines. But in court, they agreed to recommend a term of 24 to 30 months after Baroni's lawyers said the higher level would unfairly punish him under civil rights law.
The case is U.S. v. Baroni, 15-cr-00193, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Newark).