- Juror says ‘many other people involved’ but not charged
- Christie vows to set record straight and reiterates denials
Chris Christie behaves like a “master puppeteer” who knows all that goes on in his administration, concluded a juror who weighed evidence in the seven-week corruption trial and voted to convict two of the New Jersey governor’s former allies.
Juror Sheryl Bender broke her silence in an interview one day after Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni were convicted, expressing bewilderment that neither Christie nor other members of his inner circle were held accountable in the plot to create traffic jams near the George Washington Bridge as a way to exact revenge on a New Jersey mayor.
Christie wasn’t charged, but was depicted at trial as an abusive bully whose aides punished perceived enemies. The scandal helped doom his Republican run for the presidential nomination.
“It is clear to me that there were many other people involved, including Governor Christie,” Bender, 56, a retired educator, said Saturday. “Based on the evidence presented over the past seven weeks, it is my opinion that Governor Christie is a master puppeteer and was aware of everything that went on, and goes on, within his administration.”
Bender declined further comment about the trial or the five days of jury deliberations that led to convictions of Kelly and Baroni for joining a plot to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich because he refused to endorse Christie’s re-election bid in 2013.
Another juror, Virginia Huffman, 50, told NJ Advance Media after the verdict that Christie should have been a defendant. Huffman said that while Baroni and Kelly weren’t scapegoats, as defense lawyers argued, they were “sacrificial lambs” for a larger group of corrupt government officials.
Christie, now a top adviser to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, issued a statement after the trial ended in federal court in Newark, reiterating that he knew nothing of the plot.
“I will set the record straight in the coming days regarding the lies that were told by the media and in the courtroom,” Christie said in a statement. He said he “had no knowledge prior to or during these lane realignments, and had no role in authorizing them.”
Christie is also scheduled to appear in court later this month to face a citizen’s complaint accusing him of official misconduct in relation to the bridge scandal.
Bender’s comments are part of a chorus of criticism of the prosecution, which left the governor and his inner circle of attorneys and campaign advisers untouched. The government’s star witness was David Wildstein, Baroni’s right-hand man at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. Wildstein pleaded guilty and admitted masterminding the plot.
At a news conference outside the courthouse Friday, New Jersey U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman brushed aside criticism that the investigation had only brought charges against “low-hanging fruit.” He noted that Baroni was the second-highest New Jersey appointee at the Port Authority. The only one who outranked him, former Chairman David Samson, pleaded guilty in July to corruption charges for using his position to pressure United Airlines into scheduling a money-losing flight from Newark Liberty Airport to Columbia, South Carolina, near his weekend home.
Although the trial of Kelly and Baroni featured testimony that Christie was told about the September 2013 lane closures in advance, and that he and top administration officials later misled the public about them, Fishman said there wasn’t enough evidence to pursue charges.
But Christie’s version of events was contradicted in part by several witnesses at the trial, including Kelly. She testified that she told Christie a month in advance that Wildstein told her a traffic study at the bridge would create “tremendous traffic problems” in Fort Lee.
Path Forward Unclear
Those contradictions led state Senator Loretta Weinberg, the Democratic co-chairwoman of a legislative panel that investigated the traffic jams, to call for a resumption of its work to learn “what went on here.” Weinberg also said she wanted an accounting of more than $10 million spent on the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, which reviewed the matter for the governor’s office and concluded that Christie wasn’t involved.
It is unclear, however, whether the legislative leaders will agree to reopen the hearings or grant the special committee the ability to place witnesses under oath. While Democrats control both houses of the legislature, assembly leaders have been cool to the idea of granting the panel subpoena power, making it uncertain whether a new round of hearings will take place.
The Bergen Record newspaper after the trial published comments from another juror who said the deliberations were emotionally draining and full of conflict until the panel concluded that prosecutors presented a simple and powerful case. He said the jurors didn’t like Wildstein and didn’t believe testimony by Kelly and Baroni.
Kelly sent Wildstein the infamous “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” e-mail a month before the gridlock began. She also texted a comment on a message that Sokolich sent to Baroni, when he said: “The bigger problem is getting kids to school. Help please. It’s maddening.”
Kelly wrote: “Is it wrong that I am smiling?” When Wildstein wrote “No,” she responded: “I feel badly about the kids I guess.” The juror told the newspaper that this exchange was among those that were “particularly damning.”
The juror didn’t believe testimony by Baroni and found that the cross-examination of Kelly by Assistant U.S. Attorney Vikas Khanna took apart her story, according to the paper.