NEWARK, N.J. (CBSMiami/AP) — Two former aides to Gov. Chris Christie were sentenced to prison Wednesday for creating a colossal traffic jam at the George Washington Bridge for political revenge, a scandal that sank Christie’s White House campaign and was attributed by the judge to a venomous climate inside state government.
Bill Baroni, Christie’s appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was sentenced to two years in prison, and Bridget Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, was sentenced to 18 months at separate hearings in the 2013 lane-closing case. Both must also serve 500 hours of community service.
U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton said it was clear there was never a legitimate traffic study, as they claimed during the trial, and said the defendants sought to mislead the jury with their testimony.
During Kelly’s portion of the hearing, Wigenton also blamed the culture in Trenton, the state capital. Trial testimony described angry tirades by the governor and detailed his subordinates using the Port Authority as a source of political favors for politicians whose endorsements they sought.
Christie was not charged with any wrongdoing in the federal case. State prosecutors have declined to pursue a citizen’s criminal complaint lodged against him, but questions remain over how much he knew about the plot.
His version of events — that he was not aware that anyone in his office was involved until months after the fact — was contradicted by testimony from multiple people.
The scandal derailed Christie’s presidential aspirations and likely cost him a chance to be President Donald Trump’s running mate. He has turned his attention in his final year in office to addressing the state’s opioid epidemic, and on Wednesday he was at the White House, where he was selected to lead a drug addiction task force.
The target of the traffic jams, Democratic Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, had declined to endorse Christie for re-election in 2013. It was his town near the bridge that suffered four days of paralyzing gridlock when access lanes were realigned.
“It was completely intended to wreak havoc,” Wigenton told the 45-year-old Baroni. “It only served a punitive purpose. You clearly knew, and know today, that it was not” legitimate.
Referring to New Jersey politics, Wigenton told the 44-year-old Kelly that she “got caught up in a culture and an environment that lost its way.”
“It’s very clear the culture in Trenton was ‘you’re either with us or you’re not,'” she said.
Kelly and Baroni were convicted in November of all counts against them, including wire fraud, conspiracy and misusing the bridge for improper purposes. The government’s star witness, David Wildstein, testified that he and the co-defendants sought to retaliate against Sokolich. Text messages and emails produced at trial showed Sokolich’s increasingly desperate pleas for help being ignored.
Kelly, who sent the infamous “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email, wiped her eyes with a tissue and apologized, saying she never intended to cause harm.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Vikas Khanna called her the “impetus behind the crime,” but outside the courthouse, a defiant Kelly promised that “the fight is far from over.”
“I will not allow myself to be the scapegoat in this case and I look very much forward to the appeal,” she said.
Baroni — who is also appealing his conviction — also apologized before sentencing, saying he accepted responsibility and made “the wrong choice.”
“I let a lot of people down who believed in me and relied on me. Most of all I let Mark Sokolich down,” Baroni said. “I was wrong and I am truly sorry, and I’ve waited three years to say that.”
Sokolich said Baroni’s sentence was fair and he didn’t hold any ill feelings.
“I’m not a grudge kind of guy. It’s not really in my DNA,” he said. “I will tell you I’ve moved on with this.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes said that Baroni’s time as a state lawmaker, lawyer and school teacher gave him the experience and judgment to conduct himself ethically.
“But when Bill Baroni was put to the test and made a choice, he chose to abuse his official power. And then he chose to lie about it,” Cortes said, calling Baroni’s conduct “brazen, calculated, and a mean-spirited abuse of power” that had “real-life consequences on the people he was supposed to serve.”
The sentencing comes the same month that another Christie ally, former Port Authority chairman David Samson, was sentenced to four years’ probation and home confinement for using his position to pressure United Airlines to reinstate a money-losing flight route to give him easier access to his weekend home.
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