Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly, two former aides to Gov. Chris Christie, were found guilty Friday on all counts pertaining to their involvement in the planning and executing of politically motivated lane closures at the George Washington Bridge in 2013.(Editor’s note: This analysis was compiled after talking to numerous sources in politics, law and government, all of whom were granted anonymity due to the sensitive subject matter and the speculative nature of the story.)
Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly, two former aides to Gov. Chris Christie, were found guilty Friday on all counts pertaining to their involvement in the planning and executing of politically motivated lane closures at the George Washington Bridge in 2013.
The lane closures were intended to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie’s re-election campaign.
Baroni, a former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Kelly, Christie’s ex-deputy chief of staff, were convicted of having orchestrated the lane closures alongside another former Port Authority official and Christie ally, David Wildstein.
Wildstein pleaded guilty last year to two counts of conspiracy for his involvement in the matter and testified against both Kelly and Baroni during the current trial, implicating them while also claiming that Christie was made aware of the lane closures in their earliest stages, a charge the governor has and continues to refute.
There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s analyze the day’s outcomes:
Is this finally the end of Bridgegate?
No way. Not even by a longshot. While the day-to-day drama that has been pouring out of federal court in Newark will cease for now, attorneys for both Baroni and Kelly already have indicated their plans to appeal the verdicts and also will likely motion for a new trial.
That said, Baroni and Kelly are, as of now, technically scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 21.
Are they going to jail? For how long?
Yes, as long as today’s verdicts stand, Baroni and Kelly are very likely headed to prison.
For how long, however, is a much more difficult question to answer.
On paper, Baroni and Kelly’s most serious charges could carry sentences of up to 20 years. Given the nature of the crimes and their connections to government corruption at its highest level, a sentencing judge isn’t likely to be lenient.
Still, sources say there’s no way they’re sentenced to 20 years. That would be extreme.
One legal analyst said that at this point in the game, it’s “way premature to guess” what the actual sentence will look like.
Is Christie next? Why didn’t he testify?
Next, as in to be facing an indictment and subsequent trial? No, most likely not.
As ugly as this whole ordeal has been for Christie, it does not appear as if U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman has enough evidence to pursue any kind of case against Christie. This latest trial has been void of anything new and tangible that could also be used against the governor.
Christie, to his credit, did indeed say that he would comply with any proper subpoena calling on him to testify. He was just never asked to. Again, that might have had something to do with a lack of evidence on Fishman’s part.
The only true legal challenge to Christie at the moment is a citizen’s complaint related to the case that earlier this month received the green light to proceed from a Bergen County judge.
It’s also worth noting that Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville) already has said that he’s going to look into reconvening the legislative committee charged with investigating the matter, and there’s some thought that Christie could get called to testify for that.
Christie previously has shown disdain for the panel and he might not be as willing to testify in that forum.
Was today’s verdict surprising?
No, not really. The federal government, particularly through the use of Wildstein’s testimony, laid out the evidence against Baroni and Kelly pretty clearly for the jury.
The trial, however, was full of twists and turns. The Star-Ledger even opined recently on which Hollywood actors and actresses would best be suited for roles in a Bridgegate movie.
Of course, the biggest takeaway is that even though Wildstein, Kelly and Baroni were all on different sides, the one thing that they all just about agreed on was that Christie had some sort of prior knowledge.
If you go by Wildstein’s testimony, it was a little more sinister. He had said that Christie laughed when he was told about the scheme.
Kelly said Christie was previously told of the so-called, nonexistent “traffic study” that Wildstein wanted to try out in Fort Lee.
Either way, it doesn’t look good for Christie, who refuses to back down from his claim that he had no prior knowledge or involvement in the lane closures.
He doubled down on that Friday in a statement, saying what Baroni, Kelly and Wildstein did “saddened” him and that he will soon seek to “set the record straight.”
“Let me be clear once again, I had no knowledge prior to or during these lane realignments, and had no role in authorizing them,” Christie said. “No believable evidence was presented to contradict that fact. Anything said to the contrary over the past six weeks in court is simply untrue. As a former federal prosecutor, I have respected these proceedings and refused to comment on the daily testimony from the trial. I will set the record straight in the coming days regarding the lies that were told by the media and in the courtroom.”
Is there anything the defense could have done differently?
One source notes that one of the more surprising aspects of the trial was that Baroni and Kelly didn’t use the “Nuremberg defense” by copping to the plot and blaming it on orders from higher authorities.
While Kelly did paint Christie as a profane, difficult-to-please boss who once even angrily threw a water bottle at her, she, like Baroni, stuck with the story that Wildstein laid out the lane closures to them as being part of a traffic study and not a political retribution plot.
A source notes that’s a tough case to make when Kelly is best known for her “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email and “Is it wrong that I’m smiling?” text to Wildstein.
What does this do to Christie’s reputation and legacy?
Just when you thought his approval ratings couldn’t dip any lower, they just might.
Christie is easily one of the most politically talented leaders in this state and perhaps nation, so you can never truly count him out, but there might not be any coming back from this.
“The fact that two of his key staff have been convicted will obviously be a dark blemish on his legacy and cast doubts on his judgment and leadership abilities,” said one source.
If Republican nominee Donald Trump were to win the presidential election this coming Tuesday, there could be some hope for Christie. After all, he has been tasked with leading Trump’s transition team.
“People have short attention spans,” one source said. “If Trump wins on Tuesday, Christie will have some opportunity for a political future in a Trump administration. Perhaps (attorney general) would be a stretch for Christie now, but Trump likes Christie and would not likely totally abandon him. There will likely be some role in a Trump administration for Christie, who he genuinely likes, trusts and respects.”
While that may be the case, if Trump does not win, the irony of Christie leading the “Guilty or not guilty?” refrain about Hillary Clinton at this summer’s Republican National Convention will be so deafening it hurts.
It should also be pointed out that, with this trial raging on over the last two months or so, Christie has been largely absent from Trump’s stable, at least publicly.
Other ripple effects?
Well, clearly Baroni and Kelly both come out on the losing end here, but it’s worth stressing that Baroni, in particular, likely had a bright political future ahead of him if he wanted it.
A former state legislator from a competitive district, Baroni was widely respected and seen as a rising Republican star by many.
“In a world without Bridgegate, Bill Baroni would be at the top of the list for contenders for governor in 2017,” said one source. “Heck, he may have been Christie’s pick for attorney general in a world where the Bridgegate jinx/scandal did not derail Christie’s frontrunner status for the (presidential) nomination.”
How about for the lieutenant governor?
There’s a notion that this might further damage Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno’s gubernatorial hopes in the coming year. She has been visibly attempting to move away from Christie’s scandal-plagued shadow, especially lately on the topics of supporting Trump and the recently passed 23-cent-per-gallon gas tax hike.
That just became all the more difficult to do, a source says.
“It’s not a good day for the tarnished lieutenant governor and her 2017 prospects,” the source said.