A key figure in the Bridgegate scandal, which has dogged New jersey Governor and Republican presidential hopeful Chris Christie for more than a year now is expected to plead guilty in a New Jersey courtroom today, an event replete with meaning for Christie’s political future – though just what meaning was unclear Friday morning.
For those who have blissfully forgotten about the scandal, here’s a quick refresher:
What Happened: On September 9, 2013, officials with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey shut down two of the three access lanes that allow motorists coming through the town of Fort Lee, NJ to get on to the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan. The effect was a massive traffic back-up that clogged the streets of Fort Lee for four days. Children were stranded in school buses on the first day of school, and emergency response vehicles were unable to navigate the streets.
The mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, tried to contact the Christie administration, but his requests for assistance were ignored. Sokolich was convinced that the lane closure was political retribution directed at him.
Who Was Involved: The order to close the lanes was given by David Wildstein, a former high school classmate of Christie’s, who was appointed to a position at the Port Authority by the Christie administration. It is Wildstein who is expected to plead guilty on Friday.
However, Wildstein was not the only person involved. He was apparently told to order the closing by Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff to Christie. In an email to Wildstein, she wrote, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Christie later fired Kelly, publicly calling her “stupid and deceitful.”
Christie also fired Bill Stepien, who had run his successful reelection campaign and whom Christie was about to name head of the New Jersey Republican Party. Christie said that he had lost confidence in Stepien, though what role he may have had in the bridge closing, if any, is unclear.
David Samson, a longtime Christie supporter and New Jersey political power broker, resigned as chairman of the Port Authority board – a position to which Christie appointed him – before the scandal fully erupted. Whether he was involved at all is also an open question.
What they said: When Port Authority officials were questioned about the lane closures, they initially insisted that they had been part of a study of traffic patterns. The agency’s deputy executive director, Bill Baroni, testified before the New Jersey legislature to that effect two months after the closures.
However, Baroni’s boss, Patrick Foye, would later testify to the same legislative committee that there had never been a traffic study, and that Port Authority employees had been told not to discuss the order to close the lanes.
Wildstein has maintained that Christie knew about the lane closures, but others involved in the process, including Kelly and Stepien, have been silent. For his part, Christie has always maintained that he was “blindsided” by the involvement of his staff and appointees in the act of apparent political retribution.
The various investigations into the lane closures have put Christie on a roller coaster of leaks and counterclaims. At one point it was reported that a federal investigation had ruled out charges against him, only to have prosecutors insist that the stories were inaccurate. Late last year, a state legislative committee, headed by Democrats, released a report on its investigation, which found no conclusive proof that the governor had any involvement in the closures.
What it means: For Wildstein, the consequences of a guilty plea will, obviously, depend on the deal he was able to strike with prosecutors. Whether he will implicate others, including Kelly, Stepien, and Baroni, is unclear.
The biggest question, of course, is what will happen to Christie. If Wildstein can, in fact, prove that Christie knew about and approved the lane closures, the New Jersey governor will have to switch quickly from preparing for a presidential run to preparing a legal defense, because he would likely face charges stemming from misuse of his office.
However, if prosecutors are unable to trace the order back to Christie, he may be able to claim vindication. When the involvement of his staff was revealed, he promptly fired those who were involved, and made a very public apology.
He could plausibly claim that a federal investigation had proved him right.
Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: