Prosecutors: Bridgegate Mastermind Should Stay Out of Jail

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) -
Prosecutors, Bridgegate, Mastermind, Out of Jail
David Wildstein arriving for a hearing at the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Newark, N.J. in 2016. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

Federal prosecutors have asked a judge to allow the mastermind of the 2013 George Washington Bridge lane-closing scheme to avoid prison because his testimony helped convict two former aides to Gov. Chris Christie.

Wednesday, David Wildstein’s sentencing in federal court in Bridgegate will bring an end to a sordid saga that has left a cloud over Christie’s administration and likely torpedoed the Republican’s presidential aspirations.

More than two years after he pleaded guilty to two conspiracy counts, Wildstein faces 21 to 27 months in prison, though federal prosecutors last week asked a judge to allow him to avoid prison because his testimony helped convict former Christie staffer Bridget Kelly and Wildstein’s former supervisor, former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey executive Bill Baroni.

Wildstein testified he used his position at the Port Authority to lead a scheme to close lanes near the bridge to create massive gridlock in Fort Lee to punish its Democratic mayor for not endorsing Christie.

Christie wasn’t charged, but the scandal contributed to his approval rating falling from around 70 percent to 15 percent.

Wildstein was a former salesman, blogger and low-level political operative when his former high-school classmate, Christie, approved hiring him to a position ostensibly overseeing billions of dollars in infrastructure projects in the New York area.

“Were it not for Wildstein’s decision to cooperate and disclose the true nature of the lane reductions, there likely would have been no prosecutions related to the Bridge Scheme,” prosecutors wrote in a filing released Tuesday.

Kelly and Baroni were sentenced to 18 and 24 months in prison, respectively, in March.

The closing of access lanes to the bridge over four days in September 2013 to retaliate against the mayor — a plot Wildstein acknowledged instigating — will go down as one of the more bizarre episodes of political skullduggery in New Jersey, a state where politics has never been for the faint of heart.

As revelations about the traffic jams seeped out in the fall and winter of 2013–14, Christie became embroiled in the controversy even though he denied knowledge of the scheme, an assertion contradicted by Wildstein, Baroni and others during the trial.

Christie’s presidential campaign ended in early 2016 after a poor showing in New Hampshire. Then-candidate Donald Trump said he believed Christie “totally knew” about the bridge plot. Christie was one of Trump’s first high-profile endorsers in 2016, but later admitted the scandal was a factor in Trump not choosing him as his running mate.

“This incident marked the beginning of the end of Christie’s presidential potential, and it represents the sea change where Gov. Christie’s popularity began to plummet, a trend that has continued to the present time,” said Brigid Callahan Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University.

The case also damaged the reputation of the Port Authority, the powerful bistate organization that operates New York-area bridges, ports and airports and employed Wildstein as a director of interstate capital projects, a position created for him.

Port Authority executives testified that Wildstein was viewed as carrying out Christie’s agenda and that he was “protected” by Christie. One characterized Wildstein as “a cancer” at the agency whose bullying tactics made him universally disliked and prompted some employees to resign.

Wildstein testified members of the Christie administration used the Port Authority to dole out favors to Democratic politicians whose endorsements they sought.

He also testified he engaged in numerous political dirty tricks as far back as his early 20s, including one incident in which he stole the suit jacket of Frank Lautenberg, then a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, minutes before Lautenberg was to debate a Republican candidate whom Wildstein worked for.

Asked to explain, Wildstein chalked it up to youthful exuberance.