Christie Allies’ ‘Punitive Silence’ Should Go to Jury, U.S. SaysBy
Bridgegate prosecutors want to include Jersey City incident
Kelly, Baroni want to bar evidence before Sept. 19 trial
Jurors who will weigh whether two of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s allies snarled traffic near the George Washington Bridge as payback against a mayor should also hear how the pair dished out political punishment to another mayor, prosecutors contend.
Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni shut access lanes to the bridge in September 2013 to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, for failing to endorse Christie’s re-election, prosecutors say. When Mayor Mark Sokolich tried repeatedly over four days to learn why the lanes were closed, Baroni shunned him and ordered “radio silence,’’ according to an indictment.
Prosecutors say jurors at the trial, set to start Sept. 19 in Newark federal court, should also hear about an earlier incident involving Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop. Like Sokolich, he’s a Democrat who resisted entreaties by Christie allies to back the governor’s re-election bid. He also endured the same “punitive silence,’’ prosecutors said in a court filing.
Lawyers for Kelly and Baroni contend the Fulop matter isn’t related to the bridge case and would drag out the proceedings. Both have pleaded not guilty and deny wrongdoing. They seek to exclude an array of evidence that prosecutors want to use against them.
“It is disingenuous and contrary to law to argue, as the government does, that the Jersey City allegations can be laid at Mr. Baroni’s and Ms. Kelly’s feet,’’ Baroni attorney Michael Baldassare said in a court filing Thursday. “The Jersey City allegations will create a trial within a trial.’’
Prosecutors argue Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, and Baroni, a former deputy executive director at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, first tried to woo Fulop and then pivoted sharply when he wouldn’t support the governor’s re-election. Former Port Authority executive David Wildstein, who pleaded guilty and is helping prosecutors, joined them in pressuring Fulop, the U.S. says.
Fulop, elected in May 2013, was supposed to benefit from a “mayor’s day’’ scheduled for that July in which state officials would discuss how they could help Jersey City residents. When Fulop didn’t back Christie, the event was canceled, prosecutors said.
“The government also will introduce evidence that defendants and Wildstein agreed to continue a program of punitive silence toward Mayor Fulop after the mayor’s day was canceled,’’ they said.
On the first day of the lane closings, Kelly e-mailed Wildstein to ask if Baroni had called Sokolich back when he sought help. Wildstein responded: “Radio silence. His name comes right after mayor Fulop.’’
Prosecutors argue the Jersey City evidence makes the meaning of the exchange clear: “We are giving the same punitive silent treatment we recently gave Mayor Fulop.’’
U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton is weighing several requests from prosecutors to introduce background evidence that they say “completes the story of the crime.’’
Several court filings this month are full of blacked-out paragraphs or entire pages in response to a protective order that spans a broad range of information. Baroni and several media organizations, including Bloomberg News, have asked the judge to lift the protective order before the trial starts.
Prosecutors under U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said in a filing Thursday that the need to continue sealing information is “particularly acute now.’’
Releasing it would “make thousands of pages of never-before-seen witness statements suddenly available for public consumption,’’ they wrote. “The resulting media coverage and public speculation may frustrate the court’s efforts to empanel an impartial jury.’’
Kelly and Baroni are charged with misappropriating resources of the Port Authority, which owns the bridge. They are also accused of defrauding the Port Authority of property rights and depriving the people of Fort Lee of their civil rights to travel without unreasonable government restriction.
The case is U.S. v. Baroni, 15-cr-00193, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Newark).