NEWARK - A federal jury found two former aides to Gov. Christie guilty of misusing Port Authority of New York and New Jersey resources as part of a scheme to cause major traffic jams near the George Washington Bridge in September 2013 to punish a local mayor.
Prosecutors accused Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, Christie's former top executive appointee at the Port Authority, of conspiring with former agency official David Wildstein to retaliate against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for his refusal to endorse Christie's reelection campaign that year.
Kelly and Baroni, both 44, were charged with obtaining by fraud and intentionally misusing Port Authority resources, wire fraud, civil rights violations, and related conspiracy counts.
Kelly cried as the verdict was read, while Baroni showed little emotion. They embraced each other, as well as friends and family, after jurors left the courtroom.
"It's not over," Baroni's attorney whispered to a family friend.
The most serious charges carry up to 20 years in prison, but U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said the two would likely face only a little more time than Wildstein, a cooperating witness who faces 20 to 27 months under sentencing guidelines.
Wildstein pleaded guilty last year. Sentencing for Kelly and Baroni is scheduled for Feb. 21.
Attorneys for Kelly and Baroni vowed to appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia. Kelly's attorney also said he would seek a new trial.
"We are gratified that the jury saw the evidence the same way we did," Fishman said outside the courthouse.
The federal jury took five days to reach a verdict in the scandal that helped sink Christie's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. The judge on Friday also denied a motion for a mistrial.
"The U.S. Attorney's Office should be ashamed of this case," Baroni's attorney, Michael Baldassare, said outside the courthouse. "This case was a disgrace."
The bridge scandal erupted in January 2014 with the disclosure of an email Kelly wrote to Wildstein a month before the lane closures calling for "traffic problems" in Fort Lee, Bergen County. Christie had just won reelection in blue New Jersey by a decisive margin and was well-positioned to seek the GOP's presidential nomination in 2016.
The six-week trial cast Christie as an abusive boss with a penchant for profanity-laced tirades directed at those deemed insufficiently loyal to him and revealed the unsavory methods the Republican governor and his allies used to win support for his reelection campaign.
To court local Democratic officials, for example, Christie and his allies offered tours of the Port Authority-controlled World Trade Center and even distributed steel from the original Twin Towers destroyed on 9/11.
In a statement Friday, Christie said he was "saddened" by the case and reiterated his long-held position that he had "no knowledge prior to or during these lane realignments, and had no role in authorizing them."
"No believable evidence was presented to contradict that fact. Anything said to the contrary over the past six weeks in court is simply untrue," Christie said.
Wildstein, the government's star witness, testified that he and Baroni bragged to Christie during a Sept. 11, 2013, memorial service in Manhattan about "tremendous" traffic problems in Fort Lee.
Fishman didn't directly address Christie's remarks Friday but stood by Wildstein's testimony. "We don't ask people to testify about things when we think they might not be true," Fishman said.
Christie, who preceded Fishman as U.S. attorney, said he would "set the record straight in the coming days regarding the lies that were told by the media and in the courtroom."
Kelly and Baroni took the stand in their own defense and testified that Wildstein told them the Port Authority would be conducting a traffic study.
Kelly testified that at Wildstein's request, she told the governor about the study in August, and that he signed off on it.
Wildstein said that at Kelly's direction and with Baroni's blessing, he instructed Port Authority personnel to close two of three toll booths available to commuters traveling through Fort Lee to the bridge from Sept. 9 to Sept. 13, 2013, starting on the first day of school.
The one remaining lane accepted both cash and E-ZPass, exacerbating the traffic tie-ups.
Kelly, Baroni, and Wildstein agreed they would ignore the mayor's phone calls during the lane closures in order to maximize his punishment, according to prosecutors and Wildstein.
Given Wildstein's testimony that Christie knew about the lane closures as they were ongoing, and that several other high-ranking Christie allies knew about the plot or helped cover it up, Fishman has faced criticism for bringing charges against only Kelly, Baroni, and Wildstein.
The U.S. Attorney's Office should be ashamed for "where it decided to draw the line on who to charge and who not to charge," Baldassare said. "They should have had belief in their own case to charge powerful people, and they did not."
Fishman rejected that characterization. "It's very important that when we bring a case, we are confident we can argue to a jury in good faith that the evidence that we presented proves people guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," he said.
"What we don't do is: We don't say we have sort of enough, let's throw it up against the wall and see what a jury thinks."
Defense attorneys began laying the groundwork for an appeal in the days leading up to the verdict.
They clashed with prosecutors and U.S. District Judge Susan D. Wigenton over her instruction to jurors that they could convict Kelly and Baroni of conspiracy charges without also finding that they intended to punish Sokolich.
Wigenton ruled multiple times that the object of the conspiracy was to misuse Port Authority resources and that punishment of Sokolich was a matter of motive that the government did not need to prove.
Michael Critchley Sr., Kelly's attorney, all but predicted the verdict when he told Wigenton on Tuesday she was "directing a verdict of guilty" by telling jurors that the defendants could be found guilty of conspiracy "without this specific purpose" of punishment.
A key argument made by Kelly and Baroni was that they had an honest misunderstanding that the lane realignment was part of a traffic study, and therefore they did not intend to commit a crime.
"They said my client punished Mayor Sokolich," Baldassare said Friday. "And when it came time at trial to put up on those allegations, they shut up."
Baroni, a former Republican state senator, said in a brief statement to reporters that he was "innocent of these charges" and looked forward to the appeal.
Critchley also maintained his client's innocence. "I told Bridget this is the first step in a process," he said outside the courthouse, his arm around Kelly's shoulders. "This is not over, I assure you."
Kelly held back tears as Critchley said she had four children to care for.