NEWARK, N.J. — Two former allies of Gov. Christie were sentenced Wednesday to prison for their roles in an odd case of gridlock that later was revealed to be a political payback scandal that damaged the governor's presidential ambitions.
Bill Baroni, 45, who was Christie's top executive appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey at the time of the September 2013 lane closures at the George Washington Bridge, was sentenced to a two-year term. Bridget Anne Kelly, 44, a former Christie deputy chief of staff, got 18 months. Both also must serve 500 hours of community service.
"This is a sad day for the state of New Jersey" and "certainly a sad day for you in particular, Mr. Baroni," U.S. District Judge Susan D. Wigenton said. She described the scandal — which involved Baroni and Kelly ignoring a local mayor's pleas for help — as a "senseless political vendetta."
During Kelly's sentencing, Wigenton said it was "very clear to me that the environment in Trenton created a culture that you're either with us or against us."
Rather than traffic jams, Wigenton said, the case "was, and is, about the abuse of power."
Baroni and Kelly were found guilty in November of misusing Port Authority resources and other charges in what prosecutors contended was a plot to create traffic at the bridge to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, who hadn't endorsed the governor's reelection.
Both maintained that they believed the Port Authority was conducting a traffic study. But Wigenton made clear she didn't believe that testimony, which was contradicted by witnesses, including former Port Authority official and admitted coconspirator David Wildstein, and undermined by communications among Baroni, Kelly, and Wildstein.
The judge told Kelly, a single mother of four: "I don't believe you are a victim, and I don't believe you would allow yourself to be a victim."
But "I do believe you got caught up in a culture and environment that lost its way," Wigenton said.
Kelly, who had tears in her eyes as she left the courtroom, faced a throng of television cameras outside the courthouse and said her case was "far from over." Both she and Baroni were released pending appeal.
"I will not allow myself to be a scapegoat in this case," Kelly said.
The lane closures, which coincided with the first day of school in Fort Lee and caused gridlock in the Bergen County borough for days, spurred questions at the time from reporters and lawmakers.
But it wasn't until the January 2014 disclosure of an email Kelly had sent to Wildstein — "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" — that the scandal became national news, engulfing Christie's administration as the governor prepared to launch what would be an unsuccessful presidential campaign.
As the sentencings commanded media attention in New Jersey on Wednesday, Christie was in Washington, joining President Trump at the White House after confirming that Trump had named him to a national commission tackling the opioid crisis.
"It's not my role, or anybody's else's role, other than the judge in that courtroom, to pass sentence on people who have committed crimes," Christie said Wednesday on NBC'S Today show. The governor has maintained that he played no role in the lane-closure scheme.
In court Wednesday, Kelly's lawyer, Michael Critchley, repeatedly mentioned her testimony last year that she had told Christie about plans for a traffic study at the bridge.
"She challenged one of the biggest people in the state," Critchley said, arguing against the government's contention that Kelly had lied on the stand. "That's uncontradicted." Prosecutors didn't call the governor to testify, he said.
Asked how Kelly would show she was not a scapegoat, Critchley said after the sentencing that "one day, at the appropriate time, she no doubt will give an interview and lay out all the facts as she knows them to be."
Wigenton, referring to Kelly's testimony about notifying Christie, said it was "unclear to me" why the governor's office would be involved in a Port Authority traffic study.
She singled out Kelly's explanations for text messages and emails that Wigenton said undercut her story. In one instance, Wildstein had told Kelly that the Fort Lee mayor had complained the traffic was making it hard for children to get to school. Kelly responded: "Is it wrong that I am smiling?"
Kelly's explanation — that she was happy because the traffic study was successful — "really did not make a lot of sense," Wigenton said.
In sentencing Baroni, Wigenton faulted him for maintaining that the lane closures were a traffic study as he testified before lawmakers in November 2013.
"It was clear the 'one constituent rule' was on display," Wigenton said, in an apparent reference to pleasing Christie. Wildstein, who previously pleaded guilty and served as the government's main witness, had testified that he and Baroni bragged to Christie about "tremendous" traffic while the lane closures were underway.
Wildstein's sentencing has not been scheduled.
Baroni told the court he regretted "that I allowed myself to get caught up in this" and "let the people in Fort Lee down."
"I made the wrong choices. I am truly sorry," Baroni said.
While prosecutors argued that Baroni and Kelly had committed perjury that warranted enhanced sentences, defense attorneys argued for probation.
In Baroni's case, attorneys pointed to the former official and lawyer's public service career, his more than 100 character letters, and his cooperation with the FBI on public corruption cases, among other factors.
Prosecutors argued that Baroni's past work with law enforcement and tenure in government made his crime worse. "He knew better," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes.
Wigenton told Baroni that given his background and position, "it could be argued you were more culpable than Ms. Kelly." She again noted that distinction as she sentenced Kelly to 18 months, instead of the 24 Baroni received.
Requesting probation for Kelly, Critchley described the strain her absence would place on her children, the oldest of whom recently left college because of the court case. He said Kelly, whom Christie fired after the release of the "traffic problems" email, had not been able to pay him — "She's hanging on by her fingernails" — and asked the court to consider the "psychological" punishment she had already endured.
Kelly told the court that "I do not take the allegations in this case lightly."
"I never intended to hurt anyone," she said, after referring to the effect on people in Fort Lee. She said she accepted "full responsibility for the tone of my emails and text messages" and was "absolutely embarrassed" by them.
Wigenton told Kelly that "whatever you consider your role to have been," she had ignored "potentially dangerous information" about the lane closures. Of Kelly and Baroni, the judge said: "You both played a pivotal role."