Federal prosecutors brought charges Friday against three former allies of Gov. Chris Christie — but not Christie himself — in the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal, easing the legal threat that has hung over his 2016 White House ambitions for more than a year.
One of those charged, David Wildstein, a former high-ranking official at the transportation agency that operates the bridge, pleaded guilty and accused the two other defendants of joining him in a politically motivated scheme to create huge traffic jams.
Christie was not publicly implicated in any wrongdoing, and appears to be in the clear for now.
“Based on the evidence currently available to us, we're not going to charge anyone else in this scheme,” U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said at a news conference.
The Republican governor claimed vindication.
“Today's charges make clear that what I've said from day one is true — I had no knowledge or involvement in the planning or execution of this act,” he said in a statement.
David Wildstein, a former high-ranking official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy charges, saying in court that he and the two other Christie loyalists closed lanes and engineered the gridlock in September 2013 as political payback against a Democratic mayor.
He also said the three of them concocted a cover story: It was all part of a traffic study.
Wildstein, 53, could face about two years in prison at sentencing Aug. 6.
The two people he implicated — former Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni, who was the governor's top appointee at the Port Authority — were charged in an indictment unsealed later in the day.
Essentially, all three defendants were accused of misusing public resources for political gain.
Wildstein gave no indication in court that Christie had any role in the scheme. But after the hearing, his lawyer, Alan Zegas, reiterated a claim he made last year that there's evidence that Christie knew about it as it happened. He did not go into detail.
While Christie appears to be out of legal danger, politically it could be more complicated.
Christie has been putting off for months a decision on whether to run for president in 2016. The charges bring attention back to the case just as the presidential cycle is getting underway and other candidates are getting into the race.
Also, even if he is not accused of a crime, the case serves as a reminder of the frequent criticism of Christie as a bully. Some of Christie's foes have suggested that even if he had no direct role in the plot, he created a culture that led members of his administration to think they could get away with such tactics.
Asked about that, Fishman said: “I won't comment on culture.”
Kelly and Baroni are due in court Monday on charges including conspiracy, fraud and deprivation of civil rights. The charges carry a combined 86 years in prison, though any sentence would almost certainly be much shorter.
On Friday, Baroni's lawyer, Michael Baldassare, said that Baroni would be fully exonerated and that Wildstein is a habitual liar who told Baroni that the traffic jam was part of a legitimate traffic study. Kelly was planning a news conference later Friday.
The scandal broke wide open more than a year ago when an email from Kelly to Wildstein was revealed. It read, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Wildstein's reply: “Got it.” That exchange was key in the indictment.
The closing of two of three access lanes caused monumental, bumper-to-bumper tie-ups at the George Washington Bridge, one of the busiest spans in the nation, linking New Jersey with New York City. School buses and emergency vehicles were held up, and commuters were stuck in traffic for hours over four mornings.
Wildstein said they orchestrated the lane closings to start on the first day of school to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, a town at the foot of the bridge, for not endorsing Christie's re-election bid.
Christie, who coasted to re-election in the fall of 2013, has called the scheme “stupid” and ridiculed the notion that he was even interested in an endorsement from Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich.
On Friday, Sokolich said that hearing the charges had been an emotional experience.
“I simply wasn't prepared for what I heard today. I just wasn't,” he said. “It was a true punch in the gut.”
By the time the incriminating email was made public, Wildstein had resigned, as had Baroni. The governor soon after fired Kelly and cut ties with Bill Stepien, his two-time campaign manager. Stepien was not indicted.