Former Governor Of New Jersey Chris Christie (Getty/Nicholas Hunt)

Bridgegate, the final chapter: Chris Christie skates, as staffer he belittled goes to prison

Former deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly is the only member of the Christie administration doing hard time


Bob Hennelly
May 3, 2019 12:00PM (UTC)
This article originally appeared in Insider NJ. Used by permission.

There she was, Bridget Anne Kelly, a single mother of four children ages 12 to 22, in front of the courthouse in Newark, New Jersey, fighting back tears as she faced reporters after being sentenced to 13 months in a federal prison for her role in the half-forgotten scandal known as Bridgegate.

“The fact that I am on these steps in place of others from the [Chris] Christie administration, and the governor himself, does not prove my guilt. It only proves that justice is not blind,” she said. “It has favorites. It misses the mark. It misses the truth.”

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She continued, “How did all these men all escape justice?” Kelly asked. “Chris Christie was allowed, without rebuttal from anyone, to say out of one side of his mouth that I was a low-level staffer. A woman only good enough to plan menus and invite people to events. And then say out of the other side that I was somehow powerful enough to shut down the George Washington Bridge.”

But the sad truth is not only did these men “escape justice” they went on to prosper, elevated by the very turn of events that could deprive Kelly of her liberty and her children of their mother for over a year.

Kelly’s former boyfriend Bill Stepien, who was once Gov. Chris Christie’s campaign manager and took the Fifth Amendment before the state legislature panel investigating the Bridgegate caper, is now ensconced in the White House as President Trump’s political director.

A few days after her courthouse appearance Kelly went on Rachel Maddow for what appeared to be a cathartic exchange. The single mother of four recounted how she was betrayed by Walter Timpone, a former assistant U.S. attorney and friend of Christie who promised to defend her,  then dropped her case and was subsequently nominated for New Jersey highest court by his friend.

That may have shocked a national audience but for anybody from New Jersey with experience of the Garden State’s intersection of the law and politics, it was a big so-what? In a state with so many convicted, near-indicted, or should-have-been indicted lawyers and politicians out and about, it’s just too socially awkward to hold a grudge for the breach of public trust or professional ethics.

Even so, the denouement of Bridgegate that comes with the sentencing of Kelly and Bill Baroni, her co-conspirator and former deputy director of the Port Authority, still offers a worthwhile inflection point to undertake a more anthropological analysis of whom our 21st-century legal system serves and whom it does not.

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In our nation the law claims a preeminent place because it is supposed to be the great equalizer that curbs the criminal excesses of humanity in general, including the wealthy and well-connected, such that we have one standard of moral behavior irrespective of social standing.

Yet anyone who has been paying close attention can’t help but notice that all too often it is the law that’s in the service of the wealthy and powerful, that acts as their enforcer preserving the hierarchy of privilege.

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Think of the millions of poor Americans, usually people of color, caught up in the criminal justice system as a consequence of the criminalization of drug abuse. On any given day throughout our nation, the law is like a team of oxen in the exclusive service of property and capital, evicting the poor from shelter or enforcing the terms of predatory loans.

It should come as no surprise that the law, especially as it is practiced in New Jersey, should come up particularly short when it is sitting in judgment of itself and its high practitioners. How else do we explain how David Samson, a former chairman of the Port Authority and New Jersey attorney general, a prominent lawyer and Christie confidant got just home confinement for soliciting bribes from United Airlines while Kelly gets jail time?

When all was said and done with former U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman’s prosecution of the Bridgegate case, the public was left with more questions than answers about the conduct of not just public employees but law enforcement officers as well.

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A list of “un-indicted conspirators” that was assembled by the Department of Justice as part of the prosecution was never publicly released. Then Fishman fought such a release in court and one of the conspirators who had not been indicted sued to block a Federal judge from releasing the list to the news media, who had gone to court to make the names public.

But it isn’t just that it’s likely that public employees who betrayed the public trust and were on that list got to wipe off their fingerprints for posterity that should leave us concerned.

How was it that on the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2013, the Port Authority Police Department permitted a criminal conspiracy to wrest control of one of the nation’s most high-profile terrorist targets?

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Senior police officers were aware of the plan to alter traffic before it happened, and when rank-and-file officers raised concerns about the problems it was causing at the time, they were told to keep it to themselves. In September 2014 the Bergen Record reported that during the lane closures in 2013, when Port Authority police officers used their radios to communicate that the altered traffic pattern was creating “hazardous conditions” on local Fort Lee roads, their Port Authority supervisors told them to “shut up.”

In the midst of the lane closures, which crippled his city and ruined the first day of school for Fort Lee’s school children, Mayor Mark Sokolich appealed via email for Baroni’s help. "Adding insult to injury, many members of the public have indicated to me that the Port Authority officers are advising commuters in response to their complaints that this recent traffic debacle is the result of a decision that I, as the Mayor made,” Sokolich wrote to Baroni.

Members of the Port Authority Police Department even surfaced in what prosecutors allege was the subsequent criminal conspiracy to cover up the initial lane-closure plot. In November 2013, Baroni testified before the state legislature that the concept of the traffic study was first raised by Port Authority Police Benevolent Association president Paul Nunziato.

In 2014 The New York Times reported that Nunziato and David Wildstein, the plot’s nefarious architect, had met regularly from 2012, leading up to when Nunziato delivered the endorsement from his 1,500-member union for Christie’s re-election. (Under Christie’s patronage, the ranks of the Port Authority police grew from 1,500 to 2,000 by March 2014.)

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When Nunziato took questions from reporters after a December 2014 Port Authority commissioners’ meeting, he reaffirmed that he had originated the George Washington Bridge-Fort Lee traffic study. A month earlier the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association president said in a statement that speculation that politics were behind the George Washington Bridge lane closures was like speculating on the possible location of Jimmy Hoffa’s body.

Nunziato’s lawyer Charles J. Sciarra told the New York Times his client had nothing to do with the closures. “My client was trying to be supportive of people who were supportive of his union; he never intended to mislead.”

That’s a heavy quid pro quo.

What if, coincidentally, we had been attacked on the GWB by actual terrorists on any one of those four days in September 2013 when Wildstein and company were exacting their revenge?

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Sometimes justice is not just blind. It's downright abusive.

 


Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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