It was not without irony that two former aides to Governor Chris Christie were sentenced to jail yesterday in a Newark courtroom for their role in the infamous Bridgegate scandal at the same time that President Trump was naming the governor to lead a White House commission on opioid addiction in America.
As Christie stood at Trump's side, Bill Baroni, a former top official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and a close Republican associate of Christie, and Bridget Kelly, the governor's former deputy chief of staff, were sentenced to jail terms for conspiring to close access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in September 2013—a scheme intended to punish the mayor of Fort Lee for refusing to endorse Christie's reelection. Both pleaded not guilty, claiming that they believed the lane closings were part of a legitimate study of how to ease bridge traffic. The jury found both aides guilty of nine criminal counts, including wire fraud and using the bridge for unauthorized purposes. Baroni, whom Christie had named as the Port Authority's deputy executive director, received a two-year sentence and 500 hours of community service. Kelly, a divorced single mother of four, received an 18-month jail sentence and a year's probation. Both intend to appeal.
In their seven-week trial, Baroni and Kelly asserted that Christie was well aware of the lane-closing plan beforehand. Other witnesses at the trial seemed to corroborate that claim, but Christie steadfastly denied wrongdoing. Though Bridgegate caused his popularity to plummet and tanked his short-lived presidential campaign, Christie, unlike his two lieutenants, was never charged with a crime. That a politician known as a micromanager and for his take-no-prisoners governing style neither sanctioned nor knew of the bridge closings strains credulity.
But Christie is not the only public official to have survived the scandal and thrived. Other once-close allies have landed top jobs in the Trump administration. Last January, Trump named Bill Stepien, Christie's campaign manager in 2009 and 2013 and well-known as his political enforcer, as his own deputy assistant and political director. Stepien wasn't charged in Bridgegate, but his name surfaced repeatedly during the trial. David Wildstein, another senior Christie appointee and the government's star witness who pleaded guilty in exchange for a lenient sentence, told the jury that Stepien knew about the plan to punish Fort Lee mayor Mark J. Sokolich by creating gridlock on the bridge. Stepien was fired for alleged "poor judgment," but Trump hired him to lead his field operations in Michigan and Wisconsin.
Another Bridgegate survivor is Matt Mowers, also a former Christie political operative. Last September, Mowers, who worked in the Trump campaign as a director in battleground states, testified in federal court against his former boss and other alleged conspirators in the lane closings. Having never been charged in the case, Mowers described how, in Christie's office of intergovernmental affairs, alleged lines between political and official work were blurred daily—an atmosphere that made the Bridgegate scandal possible. In another apparent case of failing upward, Mowers is now a White House adviser in the State Department.
Since the scandal, Christie has nominated Kevin O'Toole, who defended the lane closures on the bridge as sound public policy, to a slot on the Port Authority board. David Samson, the authority's former chairman and the governor's former close friend, was convicted in a related scandal for shaking down United Airlines to schedule a flight to his vacation home in South Carolina. He was recently sentenced to four years' probation and a year of confinement—in that same vacation home.
As for the Port Authority itself, it remains a broken, dysfunctional agency, still plagued by interstate squabbling between New Jersey and New York governors Christie and Andrew Cuomo. The governors have vetoed a desperately needed reform package. Bridge and tunnel tolls continue rising. While funding for a new bus terminal has been approved, few experts think it will be built as envisioned. And the Port Authority police, responsible for security at the World Trade Center site and the city's critical transportation networks, remain poorly managed, hugely overcompensated, and hamstrung by work rules.
The Port Authority has grown to proportions well beyond anything its founders imagined. When so much power and reach is placed beyond democratic oversight, it's no surprise that scandals like Bridgegate occur.