The plot, federal prosecutors said, took shape a month in advance.
There would be no warning, no response to calls seeking explanation or help.
“Radio silence,” they called it.
Mark Sokolich was going to pay. And if thousands of people suffered along with him, so be it. If an ambulance ran late to an emergency call, so be it. If children arrived at school late on the first day of classes, well, wasn’t that the plan all along?
After 16 months of investigation, federal prosecutors on Friday outlined in detail how three allies of Gov. Chris Christie used their power as government officials to carry out a petty political vendetta against Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, for refusing to endorse the Republican governor in his re-election effort.
David Wildstein, Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni “callously” shut down two of three local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in September 2013 “knowing full well and intending that this maneuver would gridlock Fort Lee,” U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said at a press conference outside the federal courthouse in Newark.
“That calculated scheme created havoc for Mayor Sokolich’s constituents and violated various criminal laws,” he said.
Fishman spoke shortly after Wildstein — a former Livingston mayor and political blogger who served as Christie’s eyes and ears at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — pleaded guilty to two criminal counts for his role in the lane closures. Wildstein, released on $100,000 bond, has been cooperating with investigators since January, according to his signed plea agreement.
Separately, a federal judge unsealed a nine-count indictment implicating Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, and Baroni, once a rising star in New Jersey politics and later the Port Authority’s former deputy executive director. Both are scheduled to appear in court Monday.
Friday’s events brought to dramatic fruition an issue that has roiled New Jersey’s political scene for more than a year, sparking a legislative inquiry and clouding the governor’s prospects for the Republican presidential nomination.
In her first public comment since the scandal erupted, Kelly, a 42-year-old mother of four, defiantly declared herself innocent, saying it was “ludicrous” and “ridiculous” to suggest she had the power or willingness to shut down access lanes to the world’s busiest bridge.
She also took aim directly at Wildstein, a former confidante.
“David Wildstein in a liar,” she said during a press conference at her lawyer’s office in Roseland.
An attorney for Baroni, 43, took a similar tack, calling Wildstein a “criminal and a liar” during a brief press conference outside the Newark courthouse.
“The accusations are false, and when the facts come to light, Bill will be fully exonerated,” the attorney, Michael Baldessare, said.
The investigation found no indication Christie ordered the four-day closures or knew of the motive behind them when they occurred. In a statement released Friday afternoon, Christie said the findings make clear he has told the truth “from day one.”
“The moment I first learned of this unacceptable behavior I took action, firing staff believed to be accountable, calling for an outside investigation and agreeing to fully cooperate with all appropriate investigations, which I have done,” he said. “Now, 15 months later, it is time to let the justice system do its job.”
Others who were interviewed by investigators — including Bill Stepian, Christie’s former campaign manager, and David Samson, the Port Authority’s former chairman — will not be charged in connection with the scheme “based on current evidence,” Fishman said.
He declined to answer when asked if he would refer any of the findings to the state Attorney General’s Office to determine if state laws were broken. A spokesman for that agency, Peter Aseltine, declined to comment.
It remained unclear if Samson continues to be the subject of a federal investigation into his tenure as Port Authority chairman. The agency has received subpoenas from prosecutors seeking information about a United Airlines flight that went into service to South Carolina, where he has a vacation home, after he became chairman.
The Port Authority also has been subpoenaed for documents relating to development deals tied to Samson’s powerful law firm, Wolff & Samson.
Sokolich, the alleged target of the scheme, has long suggested the closures were in retaliation for some perceived slight. But hearing that it had been confirmed by Wildstein himself, in open court, was a “jolt” and a “punch in the gut,” he said.
“I just want the truth to come out,” he said. “And I want to make sure that from the truth this never ever happens again.”
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who led the legislative inquiry, described the lane closures as a “terrible abuse of government power” and called the indictment and Wildstein’s guilty plea “a major step toward justice for the people of New Jersey.”
Wildstein, markedly thinner and sporting a beard, pleaded guilty to two conspiracy counts, one charging that he fraudulently misapplied property of the Port Authority, the other accusing him of violating the civil rights of the people of Fort Lee. He faces a maximum 10-year prison term if convicted, though under the terms of his plea deal he could escape with no time behind bars.
Kelly and Baroni each are charged with seven counts, including conspiracy, civil rights offenses similar to the one lodged against Wildstein and wire fraud for using email and text messages to allegedly carry out the closures. The charges carry a maximum term of 20 years in prison.
The indictment, Wildstein’s charging documents and the statements of Fishman and other officials paint a portrait of a power-drunk trio wholly disdainful of Sokolich, the Fort Lee mayor, and unsympathetic to those ensnared in the horrific traffic they unleashed on the tiny borough.
Kelly, as Christie’s deputy chief of staff for intergovernmental affairs, had been part of a team rounding up endorsements of Christie from both parties. The team made several runs at Sokolich, the indictment states. Each time, he declined.
Kelly, investigators said, shared her displeasure with Wildstein, who suggested they could “use the local access lanes to cause traffic problems in Fort Lee whenever it would be advantageous to do so.”
The idea wasn’t new.
As far back as 2011, the indictment states, Wildstein had separate conversations with Kelly and Baroni about using the local lanes as “leverage” against the Fort Lee mayor.
Now, with Kelly’s frustrations building, she set the plan in action with an Aug. 12, 2013, email to Wildstein, prosecutors said.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” she wrote.
“Got it,” Wildstein replied.
The lanes were initially to be closed that month. Baroni, authorities said, had another suggestion. Traffic was sparse in August. Schools were closed. People were on vacation.
Better to close the lanes Sept. 9, the first day of school.
“Defendant Baroni, defendant Kelly, and Wildstein agreed that implementing the lane and toll booth reductions on September 9, 2013, which they knew was the first day of school for children in Fort Lee, would intensify Mayor Sokolich’s punishment,” the indictment states.
The three would offer no advance warning to the mayor, the borough’s police chief or the public, a violation of Port Authority protocol. Citing a “sham” traffic study, they notified Port Authority police just three days before, ordering that two of three lanes be shut down, funnelling thousands of vehicles through a single toll booth that accepted both cash and EZ Pass, prosecutors said.
That Monday, Wildstein visited Fort Lee to watch the carnage unfold, authorities said.
“In separate telephone conversations with defendant Baroni and defendant Kelly, Wildstein reported his observations that the lane and toll booth reductions had, as intended, caused terrible traffic in Fort Lee,” the indictment states. “Defendant Baroni and defendant Kelly expressed satisfaction that their scheme was working and agreed to continue the reductions.”
It wasn’t long before Sokolich reached out to Baroni for help, sending an email with the subject line, “urgent matter of public safety in Fort Lee.”
Prosecutors said Baroni, Kelly and Wildstein had a plan for that, too: Ignore everything.
“Radio silence,” Wildstein wrote to Baroni.
Later that morning, a Port Authority employee emailed Baroni and Wildstein, saying the borough administrator had contacted him about the traffic. Stuck in the gridlock, police and emergency medical personnel were late responding to calls, one involving a missing child who was later found, the other involving a person in cardiac arrest.
“Despite receiving the … email, with its references to a missing child and a medical emergency, defendant Baroni and Wildstein refused to contact Mayor Sokolich or the Fort Lee Chief of Police about the safety concerns,” the indictment states.
As the week went on, Sokolich’s pleas would grow more desperate, calling it “maddening” that children were late to school.
In an email exchange previously released during the legislative inquiry, Kelly and Wildstein appeared to exult in the mess.
“Is it wrong that I am smiling?” Kelly asked in a text message.
“No,” Wildstein replied.
Prosecutors noted in the indictment the group’s brand of nastiness and snark wasn’t reserved solely for Sokolich.
On Aug. 19, 2013, Wildstein sent a text message to Kelly saying that a rabbi who had fallen into disfavor “has officially pissed me off.”
“We cannot have some traffic problems in front of his house, can we?” Kelly replied, according to the indictment.
“Flights to Tel Aviv all mysteriously delayed,” Wildstein texted back.
“Perfect,” Kelly wrote.
Separately, the indictment appears to give credence to claims by Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop that he, too, faced retaliation for declining to endorse Christie. Fulop has said the Christie administration canceled a host of meetings with Jersey City officials and failed to return calls after learning Fulop’s endorsement would not be forthcoming.
In one text exchange about Sokolich, Wildstein cited “radio silence” and added, “His name comes right after Mayor Fulop.”
In Fort Lee, Sokolich was under increasing pressure. By Sept. 12, the fourth day of the closures, he again reached out to Baroni by email.
“Our emergency service vehicles are experiencing tremendous response time delays and my office is overwhelmed with complaints,” the mayor wrote. “Unquestionably, this decision has negatively impacted public safety here in Fort Lee.”
Once again, he was met with silence.
Sokolich shared his complaint with the inter-governmental affairs team in the governor’s office, which forwarded the complaint to Kelly via email and noted the mayor was very upset.
“Good,” she replied, according to the indictment.
The closures were finally lifted on the fifth day, after the Port Authority’s executive director, Patrick Foye, learned about them, chiding Baroni for implementing them without following procedures.
Foye’s involvement marked the beginning of the end. The cover story of a traffic study fell apart within months.
During the legislative hearings, Baroni’s detailed testimony about the traffic study, complete with large maps, was countermanded by Foye, who testified no such study existed. The lawmakers’ inquiry gave way to Fishman’s criminal inquiry.
Baroni and Wildstein resigned from the Port Authority in December 2013.
One month later, after the scandal entered the governor’s office with the disclosure of emails between Wildstein and Kelly, Christie fired her.
NJ Advance Media staff writers Adam Clark, Kelly Heyboer, Ted Sherman, S.P. Sullivan, and Thomas Zambito contributed to this report.
Read the story on NJ.com (May 2, 2015)