What Is 'Bridgegate'? Things to Know as the Trial Begins

What Is 'Bridgegate'? Things to Know as the Trial Begins
Gov. Chris Christie listens to a question from the media in Trenton, N.J., on Aug. 29, 2016. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
The Associated Press

NEWARK, N.J.—It's provided material for late-night talk show monologues and even made its way into a Jeopardy answer.

Now, three years after a series of epic traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge—spanning Fort Lee, New Jersey, and Manhattan—introduced "Bridgegate" into the lexicon, 12 jurors will decide whether it was a criminal conspiracy fueled by political revenge.

The federal fraud and civil rights trial against two former allies of Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie begins Monday.

Things to know about US v. Baroni:

What Happened?

According to a 2015 indictment, former Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly and former bridge authority executive Bill Baroni schemed in September 2013 with another Port Authority official, David Wildstein, to reduce bridge access lanes in the town of Fort Lee to punish the town's mayor for not endorsing Christie. The cover story was that it was a traffic study aimed at freeing up more toll lanes for motorists using Interstate 95.

The Players

Bridget Anne Kelly: Kelly was fired by the governor in January 2014 after a state legislative committee probing the closures released thousands of emails, including her infamous "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" email from a month before the closures. The email was sent to Wildstein, who later pleaded guilty and said the gridlock was orchestrated as revenge against Fort Lee's Democratic mayor for not endorsing Christie.

Bill Baroni: An attorney and former New Jersey state senator, he was Christie's top appointee as deputy executive director at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the powerful bistate agency that oversees New York City-area airports, ports, bridges and tunnels. Two months after the closures, Baroni told a legislative hearing the realignment was part of a traffic study. Port Authority executive director Patrick Foye later told the committee he had no knowledge of a study. Baroni resigned in late 2013.

David Wildstein: The former Port Authority employee is expected to be the government's star witness. Wildstein is a one-time political blogger who went by the moniker Wally Edge (named for a former New Jersey governor) and was hired, with Christie's approval, to the newly created job of director of interstate capital projects at the Port Authority.

Christie and Wildstein both attended Livingston High School, though Christie has said the two weren't close and went their separate ways after graduating. A photo surfaced of them together at a 9/11 memorial service in New York on one of the days the bridge access lanes were closed.

Gov. Chris Christie: failed presidential candidate and current surrogate for GOP nominee Donald Trump isn't on trial and may not testify, but his name will never be far from the minds of jurors and onlookers. The defense is likely to make sure of that as it seeks to spread blame into the upper reaches of Christie's administration.

A state legislative investigation and a much-criticized report by a taxpayer-funded law firm found Christie wasn't involved, but a Monmouth University poll in May 2015 found 69 percent of people in New Jersey felt he hadn't told the whole truth.

The Evidence

Though it had no power to bring criminal charges, the legislative committee threw back the curtain on the scandal when it released thousands of subpoenaed emails, text messages and other documents in early 2014.

The government is expected to home in on the communications between Baroni, Kelly and Wildstein in which they appear to alternate between joking about the havoc they created and cavalierly dismissing pleas for assistance from Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich.

What to Expect

In addition to the email and text evidence, much of the government's case will hinge on Wildstein's testimony. He pleaded guilty to civil rights conspiracy and conspiracy to obtain by fraud or misapply property of an organization receiving federal funds, referring to the Port Authority. Baroni and Kelly face both counts as well as several others including wire fraud. The most serious carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence.

Prosecutors also will attempt to show the defendants' treatment of Sokolich wasn't unique and that similar tactics—minus the traffic jams—were used against Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, another Democrat who didn't support Christie.

Defense attorneys are expected to characterize the government's case as using legal sleight of hand to bend federal law to fit Baroni's and Kelly's actions—which, they argue, may have been ethically suspect but weren't criminal.

Baroni and Kelly contend in court filings they can't be charged with deprivation of civil rights because there's no clearly established constitutional right to be free from improperly created traffic. They also claim the counts charging they misapplied property are themselves misapplied since neither defendant realized an economic benefit from the scheme.

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