By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent
Jurors in the Bridgegate trial found Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni guilty on all charges Friday morning. Both defendants’ attorneys say they plan to appeal.
For the two members of the Christie administration, the trial that began in Newark federal court Sept. 19 was the ordeal of a lifetime.
Gov. Chris Christie himself was not on trial here, but his presence was felt by everyone in the courtroom, and people paid special attention whenever his name came up.
Opening arguments are about positioning and framing a case.
In his opening, federal prosecutor Vikas Khanna said, “This case is about abuse of power and neglect of the residents of Fort Lee.”
“The defendants put their personal political needs over the public,” he added, “and they put punishment over public safety.”
The first exhibit he showed the jury was Bridget Kelly’s famous email, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
There would be hundreds of exhibits to follow.
And he told jurors they would hear that Gov. Christie knew about the scheme much earlier than Christie has let on.
Bill Baroni’s defense team was led by Michael Baldassare.
In his opening, it became clear that Baroni was going to stick with the story that the five days of gridlock in Fort Lee was a traffic study gone wrong, with no political motive that he knew of.
Baldassare said the government’s entire case hinged on the testimony of a maniacal liar, David Wildstein, Baroni’s sidekick at the Port Authority.
Bridget Kelly’s lead attorney Michael Critchley also attacked Wildstein as a liar willing to perjure himself for the government in order to avoid a prison sentence of his own.
The “Time for some traffic problems” email was “taken out of context,” Critchley said.
His client was being made a scapegoat for others in Gov. Christie’s orbit.
Critchley ended his opening by saying: “They went hunting for whales and settled for a minnow.”
Among the witnesses that first week, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye and for one hour David Wildstein.
Week two of the trial was all Wildstein.
He came across as reasonable and contrite.
The self-confessed orchestrator of the scheme to retaliate against Sokolich for not endorsing Chris Christie’s re-election said Baroni knew exactly what the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge were about.
He implicated Bridget Kelly as well, and recounted telling Bill Stepien, Christie’s campaign manager, that the traffic study was the cover story for what was really happening.
Most fascinating was Wildstein’s recounting of a series of photos taken at a 9/11 memorial ceremony during the week of the lane closings.
Wildstein testified that he and Baroni joked with the governor about what they were pulling off in Fort Lee that week and he laughed about it too.
That day, the governor commented, the only time during the trial that he has:
“One other thing before I go. There’s all kinds of stuff going on up in a courtroom in Newark and I want to be really clear to all of you about something. I have not and will not say anything different than I’ve been saying since January of 2014, no matter what is said up there. I had no knowledge prior to or during these lane realignments. I had no role in authorizing it. I had no knowledge of it. And there has been no evidence ever put forward that I did. I want the people of New Jersey to know that while this goes on up there, that the reason I am here and not there is because what I said in January of 2014 was true then, it’s true today and it will never be proven to be anything but true. So we all must endure what’s going on up there, me and Mary Pat in particular,” he said.
Democratic Sen. Loretta Weinberg attended much of the trial and said that day she believed Wildstein:
“He gave some texture to that discussion, even going so far as to saying that the governor referred to him as Mr. Edge from the famous pseudonym Wally Edge, saying the governor said, ‘Of course Mr. Edge wouldn’t do anything political.’ Any of us who know the background of that, know Gov. Christie know that he knew what he was talking about when he said that,” she said.
Baladassare and Critchley, the defense attorneys, spent the rest of the week trying to tear Wildstein’s testimony apart, not the part about Christie — whom they also had an interest in portraying as a bully and a culprit, but the parts about their clients.
Baldassare said it was really Wildstein who controlled Baroni, not the other way around, as an organizational chart would suggest.
For example, it was Wildstein who told Baroni to respond to Mayor Sokolich’s urgent cries for help and an explanation with “radio silence”.
“Isn’t that because Mr. Baroni did what you told him?” Baldassare asked. “You told him radio silence, and he went radio silent. … He did what you told him.”
Critchley walked Wildstein through his history as a spinner of lies and dirty tricks.
Wildstein looked really bad when Critchley asked him about this email, sent to Bridget Kelly on Aug. 12, the day before her “Time for some traffic problems,” email. It said, “I have an issue to discuss with you. Extraordinarily weird even by my standards.”
Wildtsein, who otherwise demonstrated a remarkable memory, had no recollection of what that email was about.
Wildstein spent two more days on the stand.
He testified that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had told people on his side of the river to lay off of Gov. Christie.
Critchley also tried to shift responsibility away from Bridget Kelly.
Critchley to Wildstein: “She was not a decision maker, you told people. When you were interviewed by the government, you told them she was not a decision maker.”
Wildstein: “I told them she instructed me to close the lanes.”
Critchley: “But you told them she was not a decision maker.”
Wildstein: “Sir, I do not recall saying that, no.”
Critchley hammered away at the idea Wildstein was trading made up testimony for a lesser sentence.
The week ended with testimony from governor’s office staffer Christina Renna and a young former staffer who told an anecdote about a Republican freeholder who left a voicemail calling Christie a fat f— and the governor’s profanity-laced reply the next day.
Deborah Gramiccioni, who served Christie in a number of capacities, testified about Christie grilling his senior staff on what they knew and then an hour later telling the press they and he knew nothing.
Her testimony hurt Bridget Kelly and called into question the governor’s forthrightness.
The head of the Port Authority police union testified that Baroni and Wildstein tried to get him to say he had requested the traffic study. He angrily refused their request.
The government played the entire tape of Bill Baroni testifying to the Assembly Transportation Committee that it was all just a traffic study that indeed originated with the Port Authority police:
“And that points to the basic question. It points to the question of, is it — is, not determined, but is it — fair that one community with 4.5 percent of the users has direct lanes into the bridge where every other community, with the exception — Assemblyman Amedeo, forgive me — every one of you, every one of you on this committee has people in your communities who sit in longer traffic every day because of the special lanes for Fort Lee. Now that is a policy question. It may be something this committee thinks is a good idea, but I got to tell you, I wouldn’t be doing my job in the Port Authority if we didn’t at least ask the question. And yes, it’s been there for a long time, but how do you not ask the question of is it fair that 95 percent of users have to sit in longer traffic for one town? We don’t do it anywhere else,” Baroni said Nov. 25, 2013.
Prosecutors brought in a forensics expert, who testified that Bridget Kelly had deleted dozens of emails to her from David Wildstein, ostensibly to cover her tracks.
And when the government rested, the defense moved to dismiss all charges because, as Michael Critchley Jr. said, “There was traffic before Sept. 9. There was traffic after Sept. 12. The traffic was there. We didn’t create the traffic.”
In week five, Bill Baroni took the stand in his own defense. He said he believed Wildstein about a traffic study because “I had no reason not to.”
That smiling photograph of Baroni, Christie and Wildstein on 9/11? They were probably laughing, Baroni said, at the fact that Gov. Cuomo of New York was expected to arrive with Billy Joel in a motorcade of 300 motorcycles.
Asked why he didn’t call Mayor Sokolich back ever, Baroni said, “I have asked myself that question so many times. But I listened to David. He said it would ruin the study. He said, ‘Let me handle this,’ so I did and I’ve regretted it ever since.”
Federal Prosecutor Lee Cortes did the cross examination and picked Baroni apart for a full day.
The Kelly defense team called as its first witness former press secretary Michael Drewniak, who said Wildstein always told him it was all just a traffic study. Drewniak was questioned about what seemed to be a willful blindness in the governor’s office to the burgeoning scandal.
Former Port Authority Vice Chairman Scott Rechler reluctantly dragged Gov. Cuomo of New York back into the discussion.
He said Cuomo told him that Christie complained to Cuomo on the phone about New York meddling in New Jersey matters at the Port Authority.
At week’s end, Bridget Kelly took the stand and delivered bombshell material.
She described telling Christie three times about the traffic study and that he essentially signed off on it a month before it happened.
She described an incident where the governor exploded at her. After the Seaside fire, she designed an event where he would introduce all the speakers. “What do you think I am, a f—— game show host?” she quoted Christie as saying and then alleged he threw a water bottle at her that hit her on the arm.
Asked about “Time for some traffic problems,” she said she was parroting the language Wildstein had used when he warned her the study would cause traffic problems.
Like Baroni, Kelly said she believed all along it was just a traffic study.
Asked to explain this “Is it wrong that I am smiling?” email to Wildstein, she said she was happy for him that the study was working even as school children were stuck in traffic.
She proclaimed her innocence, then faced a day and a half of cross examination.
Prosecutor Cortes asked why she deleted dozens of emails to Wildstein.
“I was scared and so I deleted emails. When everyone else started forgetting what they knew, I did what I had to do.”
Critchley was asked how well she held up:
Aron: Just tell us your approach to your closing argument.
Critchley: Get a good night’s sleep and present the evidence and summation as best I can.
Aron: And your client is going to fare well you think?
Critchley: Well, everything equal, I think she’d rather be in the Caribbean but considering where we are, she’s doing fine.
In her 90-minute charge to the jury, Judge Susan Wigenton told the jurors to remember that “no other person is on trial here,” just the defendants.
That was clearly a reference to Gov. Christie.
Kelly and Baroni stood trial here, but Chris Christie’s honesty was on trial as well.