Gov. Chris Christie’s administration defended itself Thursday against comments made by a federal judge who partly blamed a venomous climate inside state government on the orchestration of lane closures by two former aides at the George Washington Bridge for political revenge.
Former Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly “got caught up in a culture and an environment that lost its way,” Judge Susan Wigenton said Wednesday before sentencing her to 18 months in prison. Co-defendant Bill Baroni, the deputy executive director at the bistate agency that controls the bridge, was sentenced to two years in prison.
“It’s very clear the culture in Trenton was ‘you’re either with us or you’re not,'” Wigenton said.
Brian Murray, a spokesman for the Republican governor, called Wigenton’s remarks “ill-advised” and said they were based on lies from the testimony of Baroni, Kelly and self-described mastermind David Wildstein, who pleaded guilty in the case.
“The work of the people who have been employed by the Governor’s Office has been honest, honorable, bi-partisan and effective,” Murray said. “The actions of the felons was the sad and unacceptable exception to the way the office has conducted itself for seven years.”
Baroni and Kelly are appealing their convictions for conspiracy, wire fraud and other offenses for causing the gridlock near the bridge in September 2013 to punish a Democratic mayor who didn’t endorse Christie’s re-election.
Christie was not charged with any wrongdoing in the federal case. State prosecutors have declined to pursue a citizen’s criminal complaint lodged against him, but questions remain over how much he knew about the plot.
His version of events, that he was not aware that anyone in his office was involved until months after the fact, was contradicted by testimony from multiple people.
Kelly testified that Christie approved what she told him was a traffic study proposed by Wildstein. Christie has denied that.
“I will not allow myself to be the scapegoat in this case,” Kelly told reporters after the sentencing.
Kelly’s attorney, Michael Critchley, homed in on her testimony about telling Christie about the traffic jams while they were happening. Christie wasn’t called to testify at the trial.
“You could say she’s lying, but that testimony is uncontradicted,” he told the judge. “They didn’t call the governor to contradict her. That’s not been contradicted one iota, and I think the silence there is deafening.”
The scandal sank Christie’s 2016 White House bid and likely cost him the chance to be President Donald Trump’s running mate. Christie has since turned his attention in his final year in office to addressing the state’s opioid epidemic, and on Wednesday he was at the White House, where he was selected to lead a drug-addiction task force .
Christie, who is term-limited, has seen his approval ratings hover around 20 percent recently. His future after politics is unclear, though he has said he plans to make money in private life after nearly two decades in the public spotlight. He was U.S. attorney for New Jersey before running for governor in 2009.
Kelly and Baroni were sentenced the same month that another Christie ally, former Port Authority chairman David Samson, was sentenced to probation and a year of home confinement for using his position to pressure United Airlines to reinstate a money-losing flight route to give him easier access to his weekend home.