Five and a half years after New Jersey political operatives loyal to former Gov. Chris Christie conspired to close lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge in order to create an epic five-day traffic jam that stranded children going to school and ambulance drivers responding to emergencies, a conspirator is going to prison.
Bill Baroni, former deputy director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, chose not to appeal his 2016 conviction to the Supreme Court and was sentenced to 18 months in prison on Tuesday afternoon. He acknowledged his guilt, apologized to the judge, and wept. Last year an appellate court in Philadelphia removed two counts from his conviction related to the violation of commuters’ civil rights, which ultimately reduced his sentence by six months.
Baroni told U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton at the federal courthouse in Newark that as a state legislator, he knew right from wrong. But that changed when he left that position to go work for Christie as his point-man at the powerful Port Authority—which operates the bridge, both tunnels into New York, ports, a large police department and numerous parcels of real estate.
“I wanted to be on the team, I wanted to please him,” Baroni said. “But I chose to get sucked into his cult and culture.”
The Christie “cult and culture” in the summer of 2013, when the Bridgegate plan was hatched, involved securing the governor a big reelection win that could propel him to a victory in the 2016 presidential campaign, by any means possible. Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich had failed to endorse Christie’s reelection, and traffic in his town at the foot of the George Washington Bridge was the mayor’s political achilles heel.
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Baroni’s attorney, Carlos Ortiz, said that Baroni “lost his way” when he agreed to punish Sokolich and take part in “one of the most idiotic criminal stunts in the history of New Jersey politics.”
But since then, Ortiz said, Baroni “went back to a life of service,” including raising money for chronically ill children and supporting LGBT causes.
“Bill knows he needs to go to prison and you need to send a message to other politicians in this state that if you engage in this kind of conduct you need to prison,” Ortiz told the judge. “He wishes he could go back and apologize to every single person in Fort Lee.”
Baroni’s co-defendent, former Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly—who penned the infamous “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email—was originally sentenced to 18 months in prison. She is asking the Supreme Court to review the appellate court decision before she stands for resentencing.
Meanwhile, the admitted mastermind of the scheme, David Wildstein, pleaded guilty, testified for the prosecution and avoided prison time entirely. He now runs a politics news site in New Jersey and is perhaps the most widely sourced reporter in New Jersey.
Christie was never charged and never testified. He denied having any knowledge of Bridgegate or the cover-up, but sworn testimony at the trial indicated Christie was told about the shady lane closures from as early as while the operation was happening.
Christie’s Bridgegate attorney, Christopher Wray, is now the director of the FBI, thanks to Christie’s recommendation. Bill Stepien, Christie’s former campaign manager who was fired after Bridgegate, is a key player in President Trump’s reelection campaign.
Baroni asked the court for six months in prison and six months on home confinement. Federal prosecutors wanted at least 18 months or as much as 24 months, which was the original sentence before the appeal.
Baroni spoke from a piece of paper when he addressed the court, and he went further in admitting his role than he had during the had under direct questioning from prosecutors during the trial. He said he knew that the lane closures would cause traffic, he admitted ignoring calls from the mayor pleading for help and he acknowledged lying to the state legislature in an extraordinary testimony where he claimed that the lanes were closed for a routine traffic study.
“I’m ashamed of myself,” he said. “I’m very sorry to you and your court, but I promise to work every day to get back to who I was before.”
He added: “I am broken. So much good I have done in my life, I destroyed.” He then hung his head, put his face in his hands, and cried.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes, the prosecutor, didn’t buy that “spin,” noting that Baroni’s three days of testimony were marked by “perjury, again and again.”
“Not grappling with those issues is why this is not a true manifestation of contrition and acceptance,” Cortes said.
Wigenton said that she believes Baroni has a “spirit that lends itself to serving others.” But, she said, “this was an outrageous display of abuse of power.”
In addition to his 18 months in federal prison, Baroni was sentenced to a year of supervised release, 500 hours of community restitution and about $22,000 in fines and restitution. A date for him to turn himself in was not set.