Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, the target of the plot to shut down local lanes on the George Washington Bridge three years ago, assailed the “culture” of the Christie administration and the “venomous acts” directed against his community Friday after two of the governor’s allies were found guilty in federal court of orchestrating the plan.
Sokolich, a Democrat, has refrained from commenting publicly on the case throughout the seven-week trial. But in a telephone interview conducted shortly after the verdict, he held little back, lashing out at what he characterized as a toxic environment in Trenton.
He said he also believed justice had been served in the convictions of Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Bridget Anne Kelly, Gov. Chris Christie’s former deputy chief of staff.
“It’s against my nature to feel joy from other folks’ downfalls and demises, but I will tell you there is still a sense of anger, because my people were besieged in 2013,” Sokolich said, recalling the massive traffic tie-ups caused by the lane closures. “It was a situation that can never happen again, especially as a result of petty political retribution.”
Sokolich was referring to the prosecution’s stated reason for the plot: to punish him for declining to endorse the governor, a Republican, as he sought re-election.
During the interview, the mayor did not refer to Christie by name, taking broad aim at top officials in the administration.
“In my view, there is a much bigger story than Bill Baroni and Bridget Kelly,” Sokolich said. “There is a culture that has been created in Trenton that not only cultivates this behavior, it breeds this type of behavior and rewards this type of behavior, and it can’t possibly be allowed to continue to exist.
“Government is meant to serve and protect, and it would appear to me the culture that exists now and was revealed to exist in the course of this trial is the complete opposite of why we should all serve in government,” the mayor continued.
He sharply criticized the politicization of the Port Authority, the bistate agency that owns the George Washington Bridge and that manages billions in taxpayer funds.
And he took specific aim at Christie for appointing David Wildstein, a Christie ally who conceived the lane-closure plot and who testified against Baroni and Kelly, to a high-paid post at the agency. Wildstein previously pleaded guilty for his role in the case.
“The specific example of this culture is a guy who is given a $150,000-a-year job to oversee capital improvement projects for the biggest transportation agency in the galaxy, and he probably doesn’t even know how to change a light bulb,” Sokolich said. “You tell me whether or not that is reckless and represents a complete disregard for the best interest of the public that we are sworn to serve.”
The mayor added: “I hope and pray that reform comes from this, because if we do not convert all that happened and all that Bridgegate has taught us, if we do not convert that into meaningful legislation to ensure that sociopaths aren’t placed into powerful positions, then shame on all of us.”
Speaking about Baroni and Kelly, Sokolich said he has heard some during the trial characterize them as scapegoats for others in loftier government positions. The mayor disagreed.
“I don’t view them as scapegoats,” Sokolich said. “I view them as participants. Scapegoat would suggest you’ve done nothing wrong.”