Ex-Christie allies plead not guilty in bridge case
Newark, N.J. — Two former political allies of Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie entered not guilty pleas Monday after they were charged for their alleged involvement in politically motivated lane closures of the George Washington Bridge in 2013.
Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, and his former top appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Bill Baroni, entered the pleas through their attorneys in the nine-count indictment unsealed Friday after a yearlong investigation.
“I would never risk my career, my job and my reputation for something like this,” Baroni said after the brief court hearing. “I am an innocent man.”
Kelly didn’t talk to reporters Monday, but said she was also innocent at a news conference on Friday.
Bail for both was set at $150,000 and U.S. District Court Judge Susan Wigenton set a tentative trial date of July 7.
David Wildstein, who went to high school with Christie and later became a top official in the Port Authority, pleaded guilty Friday to two criminal counts. He admitted that he helped plot lane closures in Fort Lee on an approach to the world’s busiest bridge as political payback against that community’s Democratic mayor for failing to support Christie’s re-election campaign.
“If David Wildstein was willing to repeatedly lie to settle a petty political grudge, nobody should be surprised at his eagerness to concoct any story that he thinks will help him stay out of federal prison,” said Baroni’s lawyer Michael Baldassarre. “We’re confident that everyone will see this desperate ploy for exactly what this is.”
Kelly’s attorney, Michael Critchley, said that the case was built solely on information from Wildstein. He said that her brief appearance with Baroni in court Monday was the longest Kelly and Baroni have ever spent together.
Christie has not been implicated in the criminal case.
The charges provide mixed news for Christie as he tries to regain momentum in support of an expected presidential bid.
Christie appears to have been cleared of any allegations that he personally participated in the scheme, but the charges brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey still hit close to home.
A Monmouth University poll of 500 New Jersey residents conducted from Friday through Sunday and released on Monday found that half believe Christie was personally involved in the decision to close the toll lanes. Sixty-nine percent don’t believe he’s been completely honest about what he knew.
Less than one in 10 believe the three individuals who’ve been charged in the scheme were the only ones involved. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
Several recent polls have found Christie’s job approval rating in the state has also sunk to an all-time low.
Christie’s aides and backers hope the developments will allow the governor to put this chapter behind him less than a year before the first presidential primaries, even as legal proceedings have just begun. In many ways, the outcome was the best he could have hoped for — little new information and no names mentioned beyond those Christie had already cut ties to.