Christie Allies’ Lawyers Say Jury Direction Sabotages Case

  • Panel wanted to know if motive matters in conspiracy case
  • Kelly, Baroni accused of closing lanes as political payback

Bridget Anne Kelly, the former deputy chief of staff to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, arrives at court on Sept. 19, 2016, in Newark, New Jersey.

Lawyers for two former allies of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said a judge’s response to jurors sets up a guilty verdict by discarding any consideration of motive in deciding whether they illegally closed access lanes to the George Washington Bridge.

Jurors asked the judge on Tuesday whether they need to decide that Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni created gridlock to punish a local mayor for failing to support Christie’s 2013 re-election. The answer led Kelly’s lawyer to assert that the judge was sabotaging the defense.

“By answering the way you’re answering, you’re directing a verdict of guilty,” Kelly’s lawyer, Michael Critchley, told U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton outside the jury’s presence.

The judge’s response came before jurors ended deliberations for the day without a verdict. Their query cut to the heart of the conspiracy case. Do they need to find that the goal was merely to misuse resources of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey? Or must prosecutors also prove that the object of that conspiracy was to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not supporting Christie’s re-election? Defense lawyers say a finding of punishment is required.

Jury Question

“Can you be guilty of conspiracy without the acts being intentionally punitive toward Mayor Sokolich?” jurors asked in federal court in Newark, where they also deliberated for an hour on Monday.

In a heated debate, Critchley said the entire purpose of the six-week trial was to determine whether Kelly and Baroni sought to punish Sokolich, or whether they believed in good faith that the lane closings were part of a Port Authority traffic study.

Critchley pointed to the indictment, which says: “The object of the conspiracy was to misuse Port Authority property to facilitate and conceal the causing of traffic problems in Fort Lee as punishment of Mayor Sokolich.”

Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority, and Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, are accused of three conspiracy counts, as well as wire fraud and deprivation of civil rights.

Kelly and Baroni testified in their own defense and said they were duped by Baroni’s former right-hand man, David Wildstein, who pleaded guilty and testified as a prosecution witness. They said they believed Wildstein when he said the lane closings were part of a Port Authority traffic study.

Division Possible

In another pair of written questions, jurors also hinted that they may be divided. They asked whether Kelly and Baroni can be found guilty of misusing Port Authority property without being found guilty of conspiring to misuse the property. The jurors also asked if they must find them guilty of the first count -- conspiracy -- before moving on to the second count -- the actual misuse of the property.

Wigenton replied that they can be found guilty of misusing the property and acquitted of conspiracy. She also said the jury doesn’t have to find them guilty on the first count before moving onto the next.

Jurors also questioned prosecutors’ meetings with Wildstein, without the knowledge of Baroni and Kelly, as they prepared their case. Wildstein met with prosecutors more than 20 times before Baroni and Kelly were indicted in April 2015.

Second Question

“Is it legal to prepare a case without a defendant’s knowledge or legal representation?” jurors asked in a note before they asked the question on motive.

The issue arose earlier when the lawyers clashed over how Wigenton should instruct the jury on the law. Wigenton told the jurors they shouldn’t view such interviews with suspicion.

“Indeed, both parties had a right, duty and obligation to conduct and attempt to conduct those interviews and prepare this case as thoroughly as possible, and they might have been derelict in the performance of their duties if they had not questioned the witnesses,” Wigenton told the panel over objections from defense lawyers.

The case is U.S. v. Baroni, 15-cr-00193, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Newark).

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