Allegedly Misused Government Property to Punish Fort Lee Mayor for Not Endorsing Gov. Christie’s Re-election
Second Former Port Authority Official Pleads Guilty in Connection with His Role in Scheme
May 1, 2015 – A former top official of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and a former member of Gov. Christopher J. Christie’s senior staff have been charged with a scheme to misuse Port Authority resources to facilitate and conceal the causing of traffic problems in Fort Lee, New Jersey, to punish the borough’s mayor for not endorsing the Governor’s re-election. The charges were announced by U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman, along with Inspector General Michael Nestor of the Port Authority, Office of Inspector General, and FBI Special Agent in Charge Richard M. Frankel, Newark Division.
William E. Baroni Jr., former deputy executive director of the Port Authority, and Bridget Anne Kelly, former deputy chief of staff to Gov. Christie, were each charged by a federal grand jury in a nine-count indictment unsealed. David Wildstein, the former director of Interstate Capital Projects at the Port Authority, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Susan D. Wigenton in Newark federal court to a separate information charging him with two counts of conspiracy for his role in the scheme.
“Public officials must use government resources for proper government purposes,” U.S. Attorney Fishman said. “The indictment alleges, and Wildstein admitted, that the three defendants used Port Authority resources to exact political retribution against a public official who would not endorse the Governor for re-election, and concocted and promoted a bogus cover story to execute their plan and to cover their tracks.”
“William Baroni, Bridget Anne Kelly, and David Wildstein were held to a high standard of conduct due to the power they were entrusted with by the public,” Special Agent in Charge Frankel said. “These individuals breached that trust and as a consequence should be held accountable.”
“These high level government officials misused the Port Authority, its employees, and their public positions for political purposes with total disregard of the negative consequences it would have on the public and Port Authority,” Inspector General Nestor said. “This case should serve as a wake-up call and warning to those public servants who might consider abusing their official positions for their personal benefit, or the benefit of others.”
Baroni and Kelly are each charged with conspiring to misuse, and actually misusing, property of an organization receiving federal benefits; conspiring to commit, and actually committing, wire fraud; conspiring to injure and oppress certain individuals’ civil rights, and acting under color of law to deprive certain individuals of their civil rights.
All of the charges relate to the defendants’ alleged scheme to manufacture traffic problems in Fort Lee by, without public warning, reducing from three to one the number of local access lanes, located in Fort Lee, to the upper level of the George Washington Bridge, and the toll booths servicing those lanes. It is alleged this was done to punish Mayor Sokolich for not endorsing Gov. Christie’s re-election bid. Wildstein pleaded guilty to conspiring to misuse the property of an organization receiving federal benefits and conspiring to injure and oppress certain individuals’ civil rights in connection with his role in causing traffic problems to punish Mayor Sokolich.
According to documents filed in this case and statements made in court: In August 2013, after Kelly confirmed that Mayor Sokolich would not be endorsing Gov. Christie for re-election in November 2013, Baroni, Kelly, and Wildstein decided to punish the mayor by deliberately causing significant traffic problems in Fort Lee under the false pretense of a traffic study.
From the morning of Sept. 9, 2013, to Sept. 13, 2013, the conspirators allegedly caused the local access lanes to be reduced so that only one toll booth, instead of the usual three, was accessible to the approach to the bridge for local traffic traveling through Fort Lee. To maximize the congestion and the punitive impact on Mayor Sokolich, the conspirators caused these lane and toll booth reductions to start on the first day of the school year without any advance notice to Mayor Sokolich, the Fort Lee chief of police or borough residents. The lane and toll booth reductions resulted in significant traffic in Fort Lee, for motorists intending to access the George Washington Bridge from local lanes and for residents, whose streets were choked with traffic.
The conspirators allegedly agreed to disregard any inquiries from Mayor Sokolich and other Fort Lee officials about the lane and toll booth reductions. They purposely ignored communications from Mayor Sokolich, including his pleas for help, requests for information, and repeated warnings about the increased risks to public safety. On Sept. 9, 2013, after Baroni received an email that Mayor Sokolich had called about an urgent matter of public safety, Wildstein sent an email to Baroni reiterating that Baroni should maintain “radio silence” toward the mayor. When Kelly was made aware of Mayor Sokolich’s communication regarding an urgent matter of public safety, she thanked Wildstein for confirming that Baroni had maintained “[r]adio silence” toward Mayor Sokolich. As alleged in the indictment, on Sept. 12, 2013, Baroni instructed a Port Authority employee through coded language that the employee should not contact Mayor Sokolich.
The conspirators concocted and promoted a sham story that the lane reductions were for a traffic study. They created and advanced this cover story so they could use Port Authority property, including the time and services of unwitting Port Authority personnel and other resources, to implement the lane and toll booth reductions and conceal their true punitive purpose.
On Nov. 25, 2013, with Kelly’s and Wildstein’s knowledge, Baroni provided false and misleading testimony about the lane and toll booth reductions to the N.J. Assembly Transportation, Public Works, and Independent Authorities Committee. Baroni knowingly and intentionally made misleading statements and false representations, including: (1) communications between members of the Port Authority Police Department and Wildstein triggered the lane and toll booth reductions; (2) the lane and toll booth reductions were part of a one-week traffic study; and (3) the failure to communicate with Fort Lee and the executive director of the Port Authority was simply the result of communication breakdowns at the Port Authority.
On the count of conspiracy to misuse property of an organization receiving federal benefits, the defendants and Wildstein each face a maximum potential penalty of five years in prison and a fine of $250,000. On the count of misusing property of an organization receiving federal benefits, the defendants each face a maximum potential penalty of 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.
On each of the wire fraud conspiracy and wire fraud counts, the defendants face a maximum potential penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 per count. On the count of conspiring to injure and oppress certain individuals’ civil rights, the defendants and Wildstein each face a maximum potential penalty of 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000. On the count of acting under color of law to deprive certain individuals of their civil rights, the defendants face a maximum potential penalty of one year in prison and a fine of $250,000.
U.S. Attorney Fishman credited criminal investigators of the Port Authority, Office of Inspector General, under the direction of Inspector General Nestor; special agents of the FBI, under the direction of Special Agent in Charge Frankel; and criminal investigators of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, for the investigation leading to the charges and guilty plea.
The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Lee M. Cortes Jr., Vikas Khanna, and Senior Litigation Counsel J Fortier Imbert of the U.S. Attorney’s Office Special Prosecutions Division, and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Paul Murphy and David W. Feder of the Criminal Division.
The charges and allegations contained in the indictment are merely accusations and the defendants are considered innocent unless and until proven guilty.