Prison or probation for ex-Christie aides in Bridgegate? Judge will decide Wednesday

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Federal prosecutors are asking a judge to sentence two former Gov. Christie allies to prison Wednesday for their roles in the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal, saying they committed perjury while defending themselves at trial last year.

While prosecutors argue that Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly should receive sentences at “the bottom of or modestly below” a range of 37 to 46 months in prison, defense attorneys say they should be placed on probation – citing individual circumstances, but also objecting to the government’s argument.

“Notwithstanding all the sensationalism and publicity, Ms. Kelly was convicted for causing traffic,” her lawyer, Michael Critchley, wrote in a sentencing memorandum filed with the court late Monday that also described the former Christie aide’s responsibilities as a single mother and her 20-year career, “toiling away anonymously as a public servant trying to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Attorneys for Baroni, a former deputy executive director at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, also highlighted his personal life, including his “difficult and grief-filled childhood and early adulthood” as an adoptee who was morbidly obese and gay and who lost his mother and sister at a young age.

Baroni and Kelly were found guilty in November of misusing Port Authority resources in what prosecutors described as a scheme to create massive traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge in September 2013 to punish a local mayor.

A third person, former Port Authority official David Wildstein, previously pleaded guilty in the plot. A cooperating government witness, he testified last year that he was directed by Kelly and had Baroni’s blessing to close two of three toll booths available to commuters traveling through Fort Lee to the bridge from Sept. 9 to Sept. 13, 2013, starting on the first day of school.

Wildstein said he and Kelly and Baroni had agreed to ignore Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich’s phone calls during the lane closures to maximize the punishment of the Democrat, who had declined to endorse Christie’s reelection that year.

Baroni and Kelly testified Wildstein told them the Port Authority would be conducting a traffic study.

“They evaded, obstructed, and gave alternative explanations that bore no relation whatsoever to the truth,” prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memorandum, saying Baroni and Kelly had committed “a stunningly brazen and vindictive abuse of power warranting a sentence that includes a meaningful term of imprisonment.”

Noting Baroni’s testimony before a legislative committee in November 2013 maintaining that the lane closures had been a traffic study, prosecutors wrote: “There was no traffic study and Baroni knew it.” They also noted testimony that Baroni had instructed a Port Authority employee “in coded language” not to return Sokolich’s phone calls, and Baroni’s “preposterous” explanation that he was trying to protect the employee from being fired by Wildstein if she “skewed the study.”

Of Kelly – whose “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email to Wildstein caused the lane-closure scandal to break open when the email was revealed in January 2014 – prosecutors said she “provided patently and deliberately false explanations” of her emails and text messages.

They pointed to her rationale for a text message she sent Wildstein during the lane closures that said: “Is it wrong that I am smiling?” Wildstein had texted Kelly a message from Sokolich that was sent to Baroni, describing problems with getting children to school and calling the closures “maddening.”

Kelly testified that she was “smiling” because of the success of the traffic study, not because of Sokolich’s message.

Prosecutors also noted that exchange while arguing that Kelly’s situation as a single mother of four – while meriting “some consideration” by the court – was not an “extraordinary case.”

“Although she may ask for leniency from this court because of her own children, Kelly cannot wash away the fact that she celebrated when other people’s children … were locked in a traffic stand-still and unable to get to school,” they wrote. (Critchley, Kelly’s attorney, wrote that her children “would be devastated and severely and permanently affected” if she were sent to prison.)

Critchley argued that Kelly did not commit perjury, saying that she “never denied that she was aware that the lane realignment would cause severe traffic” or that she was aware of complaints about traffic in Fort Lee.

She did deny she was “involved in a scheme to punish Mayor Sokolich,” Critchley wrote. U.S. District Judge Susan D. Wigenton had ruled multiple times that the object of the conspiracy was to misuse Port Authority resources and that punishment of Sokolich was a matter of motive that the government did not need to prove.

In their sentencing memorandum, attorneys for Baroni said he “deeply regrets the choices he made the week of Sept. 9, 2013.” But they argued those actions were “inconsistent” with his public service career, including his tenure as a GOP state senator. Baroni voted for same-sex marriage and medical marijuana – bucking the party line in “acts of courage,” his lawyers wrote.

Baroni has also inspired others, including through his book Fat Kid Got Fit, So Can You! which “reached thousands who are struggling to overcome obesity,” the lawyers wrote.

They also argued that prosecutors had overstated financial losses to the Port Authority as a result of the lane closures, listed other cases in which defendants had been sentenced to lesser prison terms for more serious crimes — such as a 30-month sentence for a police officer who had a “coerced sexual encounter” with a victim — and predicted a disparity with Wildstein’s sentence.

While Wildstein faces 20 to 27 months in prison, Baroni’s attorneys said that would likely be reduced because of his cooperation with the government. Wildstein’s sentencing has not yet been scheduled.

Baroni did benefit from the lane closures, prosecutors contend – obtaining “the intangible benefit of making his ‘one constituent’ happy.” Referring to testimony by Wildstein, prosecutors wrote that Baroni “bragged to Gov. Christie about the traffic in Fort Lee” and “received the governor’s approval.” Christie, who has denied any role in the lane closures, has said he is “saddened” by the case.

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