Former Deputy Executive Director Of Port Authority And Former Deputy Chief Of Staff In N.J. Governor’s Office Guilty On All Counts
Misused Government Property to Punish Fort Lee Mayor for Not Endorsing Gov. Christie’s Re-election
NEWARK, N.J. – A former top official of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and a former member of Gov. Christopher J. Christie’s senior staff were convicted today for their roles in a scheme to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, by misusing Port Authority resources to cause traffic problems in the borough.
William E. Baroni Jr., 44, former deputy executive director of the Port Authority, and Bridget Anne Kelly, 44, former deputy chief of staff to Gov. Christie, were each convicted on all seven counts with which they had been charged in an indictment returned May 1, 2015, by a federal grand jury. The jury deliberated less than four days following a six-week trial before U.S. District Judge Susan D. Wigenton in Newark federal court.
“We are gratified that the members of the jury saw the evidence the way we saw it and reached their verdict of guilty today,” U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman said. “This was a long and difficult investigation, and I am so proud of the way the members of my office, the FBI and the Port Authority Inspector General conducted themselves in the course of this case.”
“The citizens of the state of New Jersey have a right to expect and deserve honest services from their government, and the FBI and our law enforcement partners remain dedicated to ensuring they receive it,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Timothy Gallagher of the Newark office said.
“We are extremely pleased with the jury’s verdict in this matter,” Michael Nestor, Inspector General of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said. “I want to express my gratitude to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, FBI and Office of Inspector General staff on the tremendous effort they all made resulting in the verdict.”
Baroni and Kelly were each convicted of conspiring to misuse, and actually misusing, property of an organization receiving federal benefits; conspiring to commit, and actually committing, wire fraud; conspiring to injure and oppress certain individuals’ civil rights, and acting under color of law to deprive certain individuals of their civil rights. All of the charges relate to the defendants’ scheme to manufacture traffic problems in Fort Lee by, without public warning, reducing from three to one the number of local access lanes, located in Fort Lee, to the upper level of the George Washington Bridge, and the toll booths servicing those lanes. This was done to punish Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Gov. Christie’s re-election bid.
A third conspirator, David Wildstein, the former director of Interstate Capital Projects at the Port Authority, pleaded guilty May 1, 2015, to a separate information charging him with two counts of conspiracy for his role in the scheme. Wildstein pleaded guilty to conspiring to misuse the property of an organization receiving federal benefits and conspiring to injure and oppress certain individuals’ civil rights in connection with his role in causing traffic problems to punish Mayor Sokolich.
According to documents filed in this case, statements made in court and the evidence at trial:
In August 2013, after Kelly confirmed that Mayor Sokolich would not be endorsing Gov. Christie for re-election in November 2013, Baroni, Kelly, and Wildstein decided to punish the mayor by deliberately causing significant traffic problems in Fort Lee under the false pretense of a traffic study.
From the morning of Sept. 9, 2013, to Sept. 13, 2013, they caused the local access lanes to be reduced so that only one toll booth, instead of the usual three, was accessible to the approach to the bridge for local traffic traveling through Fort Lee. To maximize the congestion and the punitive impact on Mayor Sokolich, Baroni, Kelly and Wildstein caused these lane and toll booth reductions to start on the first day of the school year without any advance notice to Mayor Sokolich, the Fort Lee chief of police or borough residents. The lane and toll booth reductions resulted in significant traffic in Fort Lee, for motorists intending to access the George Washington Bridge from local lanes and for residents, whose streets were choked with traffic.
The conspirators agreed to disregard any inquiries from Mayor Sokolich and other Fort Lee officials about the lane and toll booth reductions. They purposely ignored communications from Mayor Sokolich, including his pleas for help, requests for information, and repeated warnings about the increased risks to public safety. On Sept. 9, 2013, after Baroni received an email that Mayor Sokolich had called about an urgent matter of public safety, Wildstein sent an email to Baroni reiterating that Baroni should maintain “radio silence” toward the mayor. On Sept. 10, 2013, Kelly sent Wildstein a text message stating: “I feel badly about the kids … I guess,” to which Wildstein replied, “They are the children of Buono voters …” a reference to Christie’s opponent in the gubernatorial election, state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex).
When Kelly was made aware of Mayor Sokolich’s communication regarding an urgent matter of public safety, she thanked Wildstein for confirming that Baroni had maintained “[r]adio silence” toward Mayor Sokolich. On Sept. 12, 2013, Baroni instructed a Port Authority employee through coded language that the employee should not contact Mayor Sokolich.
The three conspirators concocted and promoted a sham story that the lane reductions were for a traffic study. They created and advanced this cover story so they could use Port Authority property, including the time and services of unwitting Port Authority personnel and other resources, to implement the lane and toll booth reductions and conceal their true punitive purpose.
On Nov. 25, 2013, with Kelly’s and Wildstein’s knowledge, Baroni provided false and misleading testimony about the lane and toll booth reductions to the N.J. Assembly Transportation, Public Works, and Independent Authorities Committee. Baroni knowingly and intentionally made misleading statements and false representations, including: (1) communications between members of the Port Authority Police Department and Wildstein triggered the lane and toll booth reductions; (2) the lane and toll booth reductions were part of a one-week traffic study; and (3) the failure to communicate with Fort Lee and the executive director of the Port Authority was simply the result of communication breakdowns at the Port Authority.
On the count of conspiracy to misuse property of an organization receiving federal benefits, the three defendants each face a maximum potential penalty of five years in prison and a fine of $250,000. On the count of misusing property of an organization receiving federal benefits, the defendants each face a maximum potential penalty of 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000. On each of the wire fraud conspiracy and wire fraud counts, the defendants face a maximum potential penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 per count. On the count of conspiring to injure and oppress certain individuals’ civil rights, the defendants and Wildstein each face a maximum potential penalty of 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000. On the count of acting under color of law to deprive certain individuals of their civil rights, the defendants face a maximum potential penalty of one year in prison and a fine of $250,000.
Sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 21, 2017.
U.S. Attorney Fishman credited criminal investigators of the Port Authority, Office of Inspector General, under the direction of Inspector General Nestor; special agents of the FBI, under the direction of Special Agent in Charge Gallagher; and criminal investigators of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, for the investigation leading to today’s guilty verdicts.
The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Lee M. Cortes Jr., Vikas Khanna, David W. Feder and Senior Litigation Counsel J Fortier Imbert of the U.S. Attorney’s Office Special Prosecutions Division.
William E. Baroni: Michael Baldassare Esq., Newark
Bridget Anne Kelly: Michael Critchley Sr. Esq., Roseland, New Jersey