NEWARK, N.J. - A federal prosecutor on Friday argued that two former aides to Gov. Christie used their positions of power to "crush a political enemy" by causing days of paralyzing traffic near the George Washington Bridge in September 2013, endangering the lives of "thousands of people" who couldn't get to school, work, or the hospital because of an illicit "political game."
Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, Christie's former top executive appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, "shared an intense commitment to the political success of Gov. Christie," Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes told jurors.
Baroni and Kelly "used government money, government resources, and government employees under the false pretense of a traffic study just to mess with people - so they could send a clear and nasty political message," Cortes said. "And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what makes this a federal crime."
During a nearly four-hour summation, Cortes sought to answer what he described as the central question of the case: Did Baroni and Kelly actually believe the lane reductions were part of a traffic study, as they claimed Port Authority official David Wildstein told them - or did they know that was "bogus"?
The evidence presented to jurors over the course of six weeks, Cortes said, proves beyond a reasonable doubt that Baroni and Kelly knew the purported traffic study was just a cover story used to conceal a scheme to misuse Port Authority resources to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, Bergen County, for refusing to endorse Christie's reelection campaign in 2013.
In addition to conspiring to misuse the agency's resources, Baroni and Kelly are charged with wire fraud and depriving Fort Lee residents of their civil right to localized travel free from illegitimate government restrictions. The Port Authority owns and operates the bridge and other regional transportation hubs.
According to prosecutors, Baroni and Kelly conspired with Wildstein, a cooperating witness who pleaded guilty in the case last year.
Michael Baldassare, Baroni's attorney, framed the trial as a referendum on Wildstein, a self-described "political junkie" who was described by one government witness as a "cancer" on the Port Authority. "Do you trust David Wildstein? Do you trust David Wildstein to help you make an important decision in your life?"
If the answer is no, Baldassare said during his 2½-hour summation, then jurors have reasonable doubt about the truthfulness of Wildstein's testimony - and then "it's essentially game over for the prosecution, because they built their case around him."
Baldassare argued that Wildstein, 55, who faces up to 15 years in prison, had incentive to lie.
The government tried to convince jurors that emails and text messages corroborated Wildstein's testimony.
Kelly's attorney is expecting to deliver his closing arguments on Monday, after which the government will deliver its rebuttal.
The scheme began in August 2013, Cortes said, when Kelly confirmed with a Christie campaign staffer that Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich would not be endorsing the Republican governor. The staffer, Matt Mowers, testified that Kelly responded: "Great. That's all I needed to know." She has denied saying that.
The next day, Aug. 13, Kelly wrote in an email to Wildstein, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." "Got it," he responded.
Kelly testified that she was merely "parroting" Wildstein's words.
"The fact that this email came right after Mowers confirmed Sokolich would not endorse the governor tells you they were connected: No endorsement equals traffic problems," Cortes told jurors.
To maximize the mayor's punishment, Kelly, Baroni, and Wildstein agreed the Port Authority would not notify Fort Lee about the lane realignment and would ignore Sokolich if he asked for help, prosecutors say.
Consistent with that conspiracy, when Wildstein learned Sept. 9 that Sokolich had tried to contact Baroni regarding an "urgent matter of public safety in Fort Lee," Wildstein texted Kelly: "Radio silence. His name comes right after Mayor Fulop."
"Ty," Kelly responded, meaning "thank you."
Kelly knew this meant Baroni would not return Sokolich's phone calls, Cortes argued, because she and others had similarly stonewalled another mayor who had fallen into disfavor over the summer: Steve Fulop of Jersey City.
Kelly testified that she understood Wildstein's text to mean simply that Baroni had yet to connect with Sokolich.
Kelly has admitted that in December 2013, she deleted the email Wildstein had sent her informing her about Sokolich's message for Baroni. She also deleted scores of other emails and texts related to the lane closures.
"She wanted all the evidence of her involvement in this scheme destroyed," Cortes said.
Wildstein used the same "radio silence" language with Baroni, Cortes noted, when Baroni sent him Sokolich's email regarding "public safety."
The week of the lane closures, Baroni received and ignored repeated messages for help from Sokolich, including ones that mentioned trouble with kids getting to school and concerns about "punitive overtones" associated with the lane reductions.
Baroni testified that he did not respond to the mayor because Wildstein had told him that doing so would "skew" the results of the study or even ruin it.
"Bill Baroni didn't call the mayor back - he did precisely what the prosecutors want you to do: He trusted David Wildstein," Baldassare said.
He urged jurors to find Baroni not guilty based on a good-faith defense: that Baroni honestly believed Wildstein was conducting a traffic study, meaning he did not knowingly, intentionally, or willfully commit a crime.
Baldassare closed his summation with an emotional appeal to the jury.
Pointing to Baroni at the defense table, Baldassare said, "That's what happens when you're one of David Wildstein's closest friends."
"You can be betrayed by someone you knew for 20 years," Baldassare said. "Bill Baroni trusted David Wildstein. All I'm asking you is: Please, don't make the same mistake."