Bridegate Trial Winds Down with Two Conflicting Views of Defendants

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George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee. (Sarah Gonzalez/WNYC)
· by (AP)

A former staffer and former appointee of Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were so eager to aid his rising political career in 2013 that they concocted a plan to create gridlock at the country's busiest bridge to punish a mayor who didn't want to go along for the ride, a federal prosecutor told jurors Friday in closing arguments at their fraud trial.

Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni, along with a third alleged co-conspirator who has pleaded guilty, "shared an intense commitment to the political success of Gov. Chris Christie, and they felt they could use their political positions to execute a malicious scheme to punish a local mayor," Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes said.

In his closing argument, Baroni's attorney assailed the government's star witness, David Wildstein, a former political blogger with a checkered past. He said Wildstein was a political operative and a serial fabricator on whom the prosecution based the majority of its case.

Kelly was Christie's deputy of chief of staff and Baroni one of his top appointees to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the powerful bistate agency that controls bridges, tunnels, ports, airports and the World Trade Center.

Wildstein, who pleaded guilty last year, testified earlier in the trial that both defendants actively participated in the scheme to retaliate against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat whose endorsement was sought unsuccessfully by Christie's office in 2013.

The scandal unfolded at time when Christie was on the brink of a runaway re-election victory and was considered a top Republican presidential contender. He wasn't charged, but the story dogged him through a failed presidential bid.

Christie has claimed he wasn't aware of the lane closures or their possible political motivation until weeks or months later. But testimony during the trial by Wildstein, Kelly and Baroni contradicted his account.

Kelly and Baroni both testified they believed Wildstein, a high school classmate of Christie's who had a position created for him at the Port Authority, when he told them the realignment of access lanes to the bridge on four days in September 2013 was part of a traffic study.

Cortes began his closing argument Friday by showing jurors a video screen with Kelly's now-infamous "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." email from a month before the lane closures. Kelly testified she sent the email after finding out Sokolich had decided not to endorse Christie, but said the email was meant to give Wildstein the go-ahead to proceed with the traffic study.

"The defendants say they were duped by David Wildstein," Cortes told jurors. "The evidence shows they knew exactly what was going on," he said, and called it a "cruel and callous" scheme.

Kelly's attorney's summation and the government's rebuttal summation are scheduled for Monday followed by jury deliberations.

In their trial testimony, Kelly and Baroni sought to distance themselves from Wildstein. Defense attorneys portrayed him as a rank political opportunist with a lengthy history of dirty tricks, many of which he acknowledged during his testimony. Two Port Authority officials testified Wildstein was universally disliked at the agency; one said he was considered "a cancer" who often intimidated employees, causing some to quit.

Wildstein was "the glue" to the conspiracy, Cortes said Friday, and didn't act alone.

Baroni and Kelly "chose to work hand in hand" with him, he said. "They knew what he was capable of, and they shared the same objective. It was his idea, and he certainly had the lead role, but he needed them to pull it off."

Michael Baldassare, Baroni's lawyer, had a different take. Wildstein was "the man in the middle," while the government offered no evidence that Baroni and Kelly emailed, texted, met or talked on the phone about the alleged plot.

"The notion that Bill Baroni and Bridget Kelly conspired with David Wildstein comes from one place: the mouth and the mind of David Wildstein," he told jurors. "Every time David Wildstein doesn't have an email or text, he says, `I discussed it with him.' The only evidence is him saying that."

Kelly and Baroni face nine counts each including conspiracy, wire fraud, deprivation of civil rights and misapplying Port Authority property. The wire fraud conspiracy counts carry a maximum 20-year prison sentence.