Questions linger as New Jersey bridge case sentencings near

AP News
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Posted: Mar 28, 2017 9:33 PM
Questions linger as New Jersey bridge case sentencings near

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The traffic jam that sank Gov. Chris Christie's presidential aspirations is set to conclude with the sentencings Wednesday of the two former aides convicted of creating the gridlock to teach a lesson to a mayor whose endorsement they couldn't obtain.

Questions are likely to linger long after a judge levies punishment on Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni in a Newark courtroom.

Most revolve around when, and how much, Christie knew about what was afoot at the George Washington Bridge in September 2013. Christie, a Republican, wasn't charged with any wrongdoing.

Christie's version — that he wasn't aware anyone in his office was involved until months after the fact — was contradicted by trial testimony from the defendants and from David Wildstein, Baroni's former colleague at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who pleaded guilty.

In a court filing this week, Kelly's attorney reiterated her contention that she "obtained the approvals" of Christie and his chief of staff for Wildstein's plan to realign access lanes to the bridge.

Questions also surround the fate that awaits Baroni and Kelly on Wednesday in light of the recent sentencing of former Port Authority chairman David Samson to probation and house arrest for a bribery scheme, a punishment that some saw as unduly lenient.

What is undisputed is the drag that "Bridgegate" exerted on Christie's brief and unsuccessful presidential campaign. Then-candidate Donald Trump said he believed Christie "totally knew" about the plot to punish a Democratic mayor for not endorsing Christie's re-election bid.

Even Christie, one of Trump's first high-profile endorsers in 2016, admitted the scandal was a factor in Trump not choosing him as his running mate. Christie's approval rating in New Jersey has plummeted from nearly 70 percent in early 2013 to close to 20 percent today.

The stakes for Baroni and Kelly are much higher as they approach Wednesday's sentencings.

Baroni, a former state senator appointed by Christie to be deputy executive director of the powerful Port Authority — operator of the George Washington Bridge — and Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff, argued for probation in court filings made public Monday.

Beyond extolling Baroni's exemplary record in and out of public life, his attorneys listed several cases in which people convicted of violent or sexual crimes were sentenced to less prison time than the 37 months Baroni faces at the low end of a sentencing range.

They also noted that Wildstein, who admitted he conceived the scheme, faces 21 to 27 months under terms of his plea agreement and could receive even less time.

Attorneys for Kelly echoed that argument and portrayed the single mother of four as a loyal public servant who "is no monster," as she has been portrayed publicly.

Both defendants provided the judge with several dozen letters of support from family, friends and colleagues, including some former public officials. Democratic former Gov. Jim McGreevey praised Baroni's "capacity to change lives for the better."

In their brief, prosecutors urged U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton not to depart from the 37-to-46-month sentencing range because, in their words, Kelly and Baroni provided "flagrantly false testimony" during the trial.

Though not directly related, the Samson case looms over Wednesday's proceeding. The former longtime mentor to Christie admitted using his position to pressure United Airlines to revive a flight from Newark to South Carolina, where he has a second home.

Bridgegate prosecutors Vikas Khanna, Lee Cortes and David Feder had no choice but to pay attention to it: They also handled the Samson case. Through a spokesman at the U.S. attorney's office, they declined to comment Tuesday.

Wigenton must weigh several competing factors, said defense attorney Christopher Adams, who served on the team that represented former NBA star Jayson Williams against manslaughter charges.

"The thought that (Wildstein) may receive a more lenient sentence because of his cooperation is something that any judge would reasonably grapple with," Adams said. "Then, when you juxtapose the Samson sentence of probation, it must be very difficult for a judge to actually impose a jail term."

Conversely, Adams added, Baroni and Kelly face what's known as the "trial penalty": They went to trial and proclaimed their innocence while Wildstein (and Samson) pleaded guilty.

As the sentencing is going on, Christie will spend the day making a round of morning show appearances before joining a roundtable discussion on opioid addiction at the White House.

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Contact Porter at https://www.twitter.com/DavidPorter_AP