The mastermind of the George Washington Bridge lane-closing plot avoided prison despite devising a politically motivated scheme that used crippling traffic to punish a New Jersey mayor for failing to endorse New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
David Wildstein was sentenced to three years probation by a federal judge who credited him with helping prosecutors unravel the scandal known as Bridgegate. He testified against two Christie allies who were convicted, Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni.
“This culminates a sad chapter in the history of New Jersey,” U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton said Wednesday in Newark. “There clearly was a culture and environment in the governor’s office that made this outrageous conduct seem acceptable.”
Wildstein, who faced as long as 27 months in prison under his plea bargain, was considered Christie’s “enforcer” at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which operates the bridge. Both prosecutors and Wildstein asked Wigenton to impose a probationary term.
“I deeply regret my actions at the George Washington Bridge,” Wildstein told the judge. “It was a callous decision that served no purpose other than to pursue a political agenda against one mayor.”
Wildstein, 55, pleaded guilty in May 2015, admitting he conspired with Baroni and Kelly to close local access lanes to the bridge and create gridlock. The intent was to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, who didn’t endorse Christie’s 2013 re-election bid.
Wildstein said Wednesday he regretted his allegiance to Christie, a friend since high school. He said that he, Baroni and Kelly “put our faith in a man who neither earned it nor deserved it. I drank the Kool-Aid of a man who I’d known since I was 15 years old.” He apologized to New Jersey residents for “magnifying the stereotypes about the politics of this state.”
The judge had previously sentenced Baroni and Kelly to prison — him for two years, and her for 18 months. Both are appealing. Wildstein was also fined $10,000, sentenced to 500 hours of community service and ordered to pay $14,314 of restitution.
Christie’s spokesman Brian Murray said Wildstein alone bears responsibility for “this outrageous scheme,” which he coerced others to join. “He is a liar who admitted throughout his testimony that he fabricated evidence of a relationship with the governor that never existed to enhance people’s perception of his power, replete with ‘rules’ and ‘sayings’ that existed only in his own mind,” Murray said in a statement.
Wildstein, a longtime practitioner of political tricks, told jurors in gripping detail last year how the Christie administration dispensed Port Authority gifts and favors to secure political endorsements while punishing perceived enemies. The scandal served as a drag on Christie’s presidential aspirations, which soared after his re-election in 2013. But Donald Trump won the Republican nomination, and Christie’s fortunes spiraled downward.
After credit downgrades, deteriorating infrastructure and embarrassing photos showing him lounging on a closed state-run beach with his family during a government shutdown, his approval rating has sunk to 15 percent.
Christie was never charged in Bridgegate, but it played a role in Trump bypassing him for a job in his administration.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes said Wildstein’s actions were a “gross abuse” of the public trust. Despite conceiving the lane closings, enacting the plot and then covering it up, Wildstein then began three years of “extraordinary cooperation,” Cortes said.
He provided state lawmakers and prosecutors with Kelly’s email, sent a month before the lane closings, that said: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” The scandal mushroomed in January 2014, after publication of that message.
“He walked into the U.S. Attorney’s Office and said, ‘I did this, this is why, and this is who I did it with,'” the prosecutor said.
Wildstein, a former small-town mayor and political blogger, served as Baroni’s right-hand man at the Port Authority. Together, he testified at trial, they followed the “one-constituent rule” of enacting Christie’s agenda at the bi-state agency, which runs airports, bridges and tunnels in the region. Jurors also heard testimony that he was a “cancer” at the agency who intimidated employees and created a culture of fear.
Wigenton, who presided over the trial, said Wildstein testified truthfully, unlike Baroni and Kelly. Beyond his role as the main witness and cooperator in the Bridgegate case, she said, Wildstein also helped prosecutors unravel the bribery case against former Port Authority Chairman David Samson, who pleaded guilty.
Outside the courthouse, acting U.S. Attorney William Fitzpatrick defended a sentence that rewarded Wildstein for his cooperation, despite setting in motion one of New Jersey’s biggest political scandals.
“It’s not a get-out-of-jail free card,” Fitzpatrick told reporters. “But it is a fair and appropriate system in which people who substantially assist the government receive a tangible benefit.”