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Two former Christie allies found guilty on all counts in Bridgegate trial

Bill Baroni, foreground, walks with attorneys Jennifer Mara, left, and Michael Baldassare. | AP Photo/Mel Evans

Christie has denied any advance knowledge of the political payback plan.

NEWARK — Jurors on Friday found two former allies of Gov. Chris Christie guilty of closing lanes to the George Washington Bridge in what prosecutors had alleged was an act of political retribution.

The jurors deliberated all week before delivering a verdict on Friday morning, saying in U.S. District Court that they found Bill Baroni, a former top official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Bridget Anne Kelly, a former deputy chief of staff to Christie, guilty on all counts.

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The two, who were indicted last May on charges of conspiracy, fraud and civil rights violations, faces up to 20 years in prison under the most serious charges.

Baroni and Kelly were convicted of closing several local access lanes to the bridge — the world’s busiest — and creating days of gridlock in Fort Lee, where the span is located.

Prosecutors argued the reason for the closures was to punish the Democratic mayor of the town for not endorsing Christie, a Republican, in his 2013 reelection bid. And while the indictment and much of the trial was focused on the retribution, a last-minute ruling by Judge Susan Wigenton removed any mention of political punishment from jury instructions, raising vehement objections from the defense.

As the jury deliberated on Tuesday, Kelly’s lawyer, Michael Critchley, accused Wigenton of “directing a verdict of guilty.” She rejected a formal request to reconsider her ruling.

In a statement released after the verdict, Christie reiterated that he had “no knowledge prior to or during these lane realignments” and said he plans to “set the record straight in the coming days regarding the lies that were told by the media and in the courtroom.”

Baroni, 44, was a close Christie confidant and the governor’s top lieutenant at the Port, where he was deputy executive director. He previously served as a Republican state senator with a reputation on both sides of the aisle for his tenacity.

Kelly, a divorced mother of four school-aged children, was a Christie loyalist who worked her way up the ranks of the administration, though testimony during the trial suggested the 44-year-old never seemed to be a member of the governor’s inner circle. Throughout the trial, defense attorneys suggested Kelly was more of a functionary than a leader — one who often bore the brunt of Christie’s hair-trigger temper.

She struggled to hold back tears as the verdict was read on Friday, while Baroni betrayed little emotion. The two later appeared outside the courthouse, where their attorneys promised to appeal.

“I am innocent of these charges, and I am very, very looking forward to this appeal,” said Baroni. Kelly, who appeared visibly shaken, did not speak. They remain free on bail with sentencing scheduled for Feb. 21.

The two were convicted of working with David Wildstein, who was the Port’s director of interstate capital projects and became the government’s star witness during that trial. He is the self-admitted mastermind of the scheme, and he has already pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the government.

Gov. Chris Christie.

The six-week federal trial included testimony from some of Christie’s closest aides and advisers. And though Christie was never charged with a crime and did not appear in court, his presence loomed over the trial. Former aides detailed how the governor’s office was used, from the earliest days of his first term, to advance the governor’s political interests, including claims that the governor not only knew about the lane closures but approved the plan, believing it to be a “traffic study.”

Christie, who is currently a top adviser to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, has denied any knowledge or involvement in the lane closures.

But the testimony of numerous witnesses — including several who are still in his good graces and were never accused of any wrongdoing — all said Christie was told of the lane closures long before the time frame he has acknowledged.

U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman told reporters outside the courthouse that he took “no pleasure” in the verdict. He declined to say why Christie or others around him were not charged, other to say they brought cases against those who they could prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” had broken the law.

“People should draw whatever conclusion they feel is warranted by the evidence about the governor’s role,” he said, saying it is not his job to “clear” people of wrongdoing, just to decide if a case can be brought.

“There was evidence that David Wildstein provided that the governor was told about he lane closures on Sept. 11 of 2013,” he added. “He did not say anything beyond what you heard in the courtroom.”

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, who helped lead the legislative inquiry in the lane closures, told reporters on Friday that she will seek “further investigation” of the case, and that Christie’s “claiming that he didn’t know about this until January 2014 is patently ridiculous.”

The Fort Lee mayor who was targeted in the scheme, Mark Sokolich, said in an interview on Friday that “if reform doesn’t come of this, then shame on all of us.”

“A bright light has been shined on a culture that is absolutely incomprehensible, where petty retribution is not only cultivated … but it’s actually rewarded,” he said.

Source: POLITICO – TOP Stories

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