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- September 9, 2013
- Several High Ranking Officials Sent Packing
It was a bumper-to-bumper political dirty trick! That's what some local New Jersey politicians screamed. "Bridgegate", also known as the "George Washington Bridge lane closure" scandal and the "Fort Lee lane closure" scandal, led to some major rush hour traffic snarls and some big time accusations of political wrongdoing by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, casting a shadow on any future hopes he might have for national office.
It all started when a Christie staffer and some political appointees allegedly dreamt up a plan to create traffic jams in Fort Lee by closing lanes at the bridge toll plaza, causing backups for commuters heading into New York City. On the morning of September 9, 2013, 2 of the 3 eastbound lanes were closed for no apparent reason, forcing cars from Fort Lee to find another route.
Fort Lee officials also complained that they weren't tipped off about the closures, saying it was a threat to public safety. (In fact, a 91 year old woman died of a cardiac arrest as traffic jams delayed emergency response times.) It lasted until the following Friday, September 13, when the Port Authority ordered the lanes reopened.
Why did it happen? Some say it was payback against Fort Lee's Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat…
…for not endorsing Republican Christie in his re-election race. Others thought it might be payback for Sokolich's backing of a major skyscraper near the bridge access point.
Meantime, the Governor faced a lot of heat.
Christie said in a radio interview that he didn't know of the lane closure and didn't approve them, and only became aware of them after they were reopened after reading a newspaper story. And he was cleared in a report issued by a law firm. But critics pointed out that the Governor hired the law firm in question and that it didn't interview key participants.
Then attention turned to Christie's staff.
David Wildstein, who knew Christie in high school…
…ordered the closures.
Bill Baroni, who Christie had appointed as deputy executive director of the Port Authority…
…told a state Assembly committee it was part of a traffic study and later resigned.
Bridget Anne Kelly…
…Christie's Deputy Chief of Staff was fired by the Governor for not being forthcoming with him that she was involved.
Christi's political adviser Bill Stepien…
…stepped down after Christie said he didn't like the tone of Stepien's emails relating to the lane closures
And Port Authority Chairman David Samson…
…who was accused of ethical violations and conflicts of interest after the closures, offered his resignation by the end of March, 2014.
Through it all, Christie insisted he was not involved.
Sokolich wasn't buying it and called the lane closing a petty political vendetta.
Some polls showed the scandal damaged the Governor's brand. As of early 2015, Christie had not declared himself a candidate for President in 2016 nor could it be determined how Bridgegate truly effected his national or statewide reputation.
On May 1, 2015, it was announced that Baroni and Kelly were each indicted on nine counts of conspiracy and fraud for their roles in conspiring to close the GWB's local access lanes. The indictment said there was no Port Authority traffic study. The most serious charges carry penalties of up to twenty years in prison.
Kelly maintained her innocence:
Wildstein pleaded guilty to his role in the politically motivated closures, designed to punish Fort Lee Mayor Sokolich for not endorsing Governor Christie's re-election bid. His attorney Allen Zegas told reporters:
Christie was not mentioned in the indictment. However, it remains to be seen how this affects him in the court of public opinion. On June 30, 2015, he declared himself a candidate for the 2016 Republican Party nomination for President of the United States.
He struggled in the early national polling to build a strong following. And Christie's Presidential run officially ended with the February, 2016 New Hampshire primary after he finished with a disappointing vote count.
Fast forward to November 4th, 2016 – just four days before the Presidential Election in which Christie was heading up the transition team in the event Republican candidate Donald Trump was elected.
Baroni and Kelly were both convicted of all nine of the conspiracy counts against them. Kelly reportedly wept silently while Baroni smiled and hugged his family when the verdicts were announced.
They each face stretches of up to 86 years in prison at their February 21, 2017 sentencing, although both plan to appeal. (Wildenstein had pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy earlier in 2016.)
Christie, meantime, faced renewed accusations during the trial – including from Kelly -that he knew about the whole thing. He continued to deny it.
Trump won the White House and kept Christie on his team in the days just after the election. However, by Friday of that same week Christie was replaced by Vice President-elect Mike Pence as leader of the transition team, with Christie demoted to Vice Chairman.
And the convictions of his New Jersey aides led to much speculation about how the whole mess may affect Chris Christie's political career on a long-range basis.