NEWARK — A jury Friday found two former allies of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie guilty on all counts in a case in which they were accused of creating traffic gridlock at the George Washington Bridge as political payback.
The jury was in its fifth day considering the legal fates of Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, once the governor’s top appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The two are accused of working with another former Port Authority official, David Wildstein, to reduce access lanes to the bridge in Fort Lee, N.J., over five mornings in September 2013 to send a message to the borough’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, for declining to endorse Christie, a Republican, for re-election. Wildstein has pleaded guilty.
Defense lawyers Thursday privately sought to persuade Judge Susan D. Wigenton to declare a mistrial.
The reason for the mistrial request was unclear because the four-page letter sent to Wigenton was mostly blacked out. Hours after the request was filed, lawyers for a group of media outlets, including Gannett Co. Inc., which publishes The (Bergen County, N.J.) Record, asked Wigenton to release the letter as well as sealed documents in the case.
Wigenton did not respond to that motion for the full mistrial but did seal closed-door proceedings from Wednesday because their “disclosure may complicate the court’s efforts to ensure a fair trial,” she wrote.
Lawyers met several times in Wigenton’s courtroom Wednesday behind locked doors and declined to comment to reporters who were camped out in the hallway, attempting to get information on the trial’s developments. But Wigenton ordered transcripts of the discussions sealed.
Bruce Rosen, an attorney for the media outlets, asked the judge in a Thursday filing to either open the court or give specific reasons for sealing documents and locking the courtroom.
“This is one of the highest-profile trials of public officials in state history and it continues to draw national attention. It is essential to public confidence in the integrity of the judicial system that the public be able to fully understand and discuss the issues at stake as to conduct of this trial,” wrote Rosen, of the Florham Park firm McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen & Carvelli. “This prosecution and the issues involving allegations of public corruption are at the very core of the First Amendment and the public is entitled to be fully informed.”
The punishment of Sokolich was the backbone of the case against Kelly and Baroni but became the bone of contention in the trial. Siding with the prosecution earlier in the week, Wigenton instructed the jury that Kelly and Baroni did not have to intentionally punish Sokolich to be found guilty of conspiracy. They are charged with seven counts each of conspiracy, wire fraud and civil rights violations.
Wigenton’s decision would “eviscerate” the defense’s case because “punishment is the key,” said Michael Critchley, the lead attorney for Kelly. Critchley and Baroni’s lead attorney, Michael Baldassare, filed a joint motion Wednesday asking Wigenton to re-instruct the jury and include language of retribution against Sokolich in the conspiracy charges. She denied the request Thursday.
Critchley and Baldassare then tried a new approach. They filed a joint request asking Wigenton to instruct the jury to disregard evidence related to Steven Fulop, the Democratic mayor of Jersey City who was allegedly punished in 2013 for not endorsing Christie.
“The Fulop evidence was admitted to support the now abandoned prosecution theory of punishment of Mayor Sokolich,” Baldassare wrote. “Because punishment is no longer an issue — according to the court and the prosecution — the jury should be instructed to disregard the Fulop evidence. It is no longer relevant or useful in any way and, in fact, can only serve to unfairly prejudice the defendants.”
Wigenton did not respond to that request Thursday.
Kelly and Baroni will be sentenced Feb. 21, 2017.
Follow Dustin Racioppi on Twitter: @dracioppi