Two former allies of Gov. Chris Christie were charged with conspiracy Friday after a third key figure pleaded guilty to plotting with them to snarl traffic leading to one of the world's busiest bridges in a political retribution scheme.
The indictments, announced by prosecutors, and the guilty plea by David Wildstein, a Christie appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, marked a dramatic downfall for the Christie team. It pushed the scandal known as Bridgegate back into the headlines at a time when Christie, a Republican, has been struggling to drum up support to seek his party's presidential nomination.
Christie got one piece of good news from the prosecutor running the investigation. "Based on the evidence that is currently available to us," U.S. Atty. Paul J. Fishman said at a news conference, "we're not going to charge anybody else in this scheme."
Even without further charges, the scandal has done huge damage to Christie's once-high hopes of winning the Republican nomination, moving him from a possible front-runner to an afterthought. Polls have shown large percentages of Republican voters hold an unfavorable opinion of Christie, and longtime allies have increasingly begun backing rival candidates.
Fishman said that there were unindicted co-conspirators in the case whom he could not name, citing Justice Department policy. But he said those people might eventually be identified.
Wildstein was a political appointee who formerly served as a senior official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the George Washington Bridge linking New Jersey to New York City. In federal court in Newark, Wildstein pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy.
Christie's former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and Bill Baroni, whom Christie had appointed deputy executive director of the Port Authority, were charged with nine counts of conspiracy each.
Christie insisted again Friday that he knew nothing of a plot, which Fishman said began brewing in March 2011 as Wildstein began discussing with Kelly and Baroni how they could use access lanes on the George Washington Bridge as leverage against the Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee, which sits at the foot of the New Jersey side of the bridge. But no such closures were made at the time.
Prosecutors say that in September 2013, the three suddenly closed all but one access lane leading from Fort Lee onto the bridge to punish Sokolich for not endorsing Christie's 2013 reelection campaign.
The charges "make clear that what I've said from Day One is true," Christie said. "I had no knowledge or involvement in the planning or execution of this act.
"The moment I first learned of this unacceptable behavior I took action, firing staff believed to be accountable, calling for an outside investigation and agreeing to fully cooperate with all appropriate investigations, which I have done. Now, 15 months later, it is time to let the justice system do its job," he said.
Kelly and Baroni, who were expected to surrender Monday, denied wrongdoing.
"David Wildstein is a liar," Kelly said at a news conference. "I never ordered or conspired with David Wildstein to close or realign lanes of the bridge for any reason, much less for retribution."
Baroni's attorney, Michael Baldasarre, also called Wildstein a liar during a news conference in Trenton, the state capital, and said his client was innocent.
In court, Wildstein, 53, answered "yes" over and over again as Judge Susan D. Wigenton asked whether he had plotted with Kelly and Baroni to create traffic jams to punish Sokolich for not backing Christie's reelection. The governor's team had sought endorsements from several Democratic officials in New Jersey in an effort to run up a big victory that had bipartisan support. That could appeal to Republican donors and operatives eyeing Christie for a White House run.
In August 2013, Kelly confirmed that Sokolich would not back the governor.
"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Kelly wrote to Wildstein in an email. "Got it," Wildstein replied. Instead of closing the bridge access lanes right away, Fishman said, the three waited until Sept. 9, 2013, the first day of school, "to further ratchet up the injury to Fort Lee."
"The people of Fort Lee, New Jersey, woke up to a traffic nightmare," said Fishman, describing children unable to get to school, adults unable to get to work, and emergency responders left to fight their way through the gridlock to reach people who needed assistance. The traffic jams lasted four days, and prosecutors say Kelly, Baroni and Wildstein agreed to ignore Sokolich's calls for help reopening the lanes.
"The conspirators concocted and promoted a sham story that reducing the number of lanes and toll booths ... was for a traffic study," the indictment reads. "They created and continually advanced this cover story ... to conceal the conspirators' true punitive purpose."
The scheme detailed in the indictment began to unravel as reporters and state lawmakers pressed for more information. After the August emails between Kelly and Wildstein surfaced, Christie fired Kelly.
Last December, state lawmakers investigating the lane closures said they had not turned up evidence that Christie knew of the plans.
Wildstein resigned from the Port Authority last year. He pleaded guilty Friday to conspiracy to obtain by fraud or misapply government property, and conspiracy against civil rights. He was released on a personal recognizance bond of $100,000 and is to be sentenced on Aug 6. The maximum sentence he faces is 15 years, but his cooperation with prosecutors was likely to reduce that, Fishman said.
The indictment against Baroni and Kelly charges, among other things, that they plotted to misuse Port Authority property, conspired to and committed wire fraud, and conspired to injure and oppress civil rights. The charges carry a "theoretical maximum" punishment of 86 years in prison for each of them, Fishman said, but he made clear he did not expect them to receive double-digit sentences if convicted.
State Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat who helped the investigations into Bridgegate, called the scandal "a black eye on representative democracy."
"People deserve to have the ability to trust their elected officials," he said.