NEWARK–David Wildstein, who orchestrated the scheme of political retribution that became known as Bridgegate and then cooperated with federal prosecutors to help convict two members of Gov. Chris Christie’s inner circle, will spend no time in prison for his role in the scandal.
The former Republican operative was sentenced to three years’ probation and 500 hours of community service Wednesday morning. He was also prohibited from seeking or accepting employment with any government agency.
“There should be no doubt that I deeply regret my actions at the George Washington Bridge,” said Wildstein whose voice occasionally broke as he addressed the court. “It was a callous decision. It served no sensible purpose other than to punish a mayor.”
Wildstein also apologized to the mayor and residents of Fort Lee and to people at the Port Authority.
His sentencing came two years after pleading guilty in the highly charged case that left a dark stain on the Christie administration, finally closing the book on a bizarre episode that began with the inexplicable shutdown of local access lanes at the George Washington Bridge in 2013.
Only later was it revealed that the lane closures were meant to deliberately cause massive gridlock in the town of a local mayor who refused to endorse the governor for re-election.
In sentencing Wildstein, U.S. District Judge Susan D. Wigenton said the case “culminates a sad chapter in the history of New Jersey,” adding that there clearly was a culture and environment in the governor office “that somehow made this outrageous conduct seem acceptable.”
Referencing Wildstein’s “one constituent” rule–that his only constituent at the Port Authority was Christie, the judge said it was the residents of the state who should have been the one constituent that Wildstein cared about. Still, she said it was important to note that only Wildstein had “at least made an attempt to rectify some of your wrongs– unlike others in this case.”
While Wildstein faced up to 27 months in prison, federal prosecutors had urged Wigenton to impose a sentence of probation, citing his extensive cooperation and assistance in a 16-month investigation that led to charges against Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Bridget Anne Kelly, who had served as a deputy chief of staff to Christie.
“Put simply, were it not for Wildstein’s decision to cooperate and disclose the true nature of the lane reductions, there likely would have been no prosecutions related to the bridge scheme,” the prosecutors wrote.
Wildstein testified for eight days during the trial of Baroni and Kelly, spelling out a scheme to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for his refusal to support Christie for re-election in 2013. Wildstein described a plan to strategically shut down several toll lanes at the word’s busiest bridge during the morning rush hour on the first day of school.
Baroni and Kelly were convicted in November. But Wildstein admitted that he was the one who first came up with the plan, after realizing how quickly traffic would back up into surrounding neighborhoods if several lanes dedicated to motorists entering the toll plaza from Fort Lee were eliminated.
Christie was never accused of any wrongdoing and has repeatedly denied knowing anything about the retribution scheme before it came to light. However, the case broke as he was planning a run for national office and the scandal was a constant focus during much of the campaign.
In his statement to the court, Wildstein, while accepting responsibility, was also sharply criticized the Christie administration and others in the governor’s office, who he claimed had encouraged the actions of Baroni, Kelly and himself.
“The three of us put our trust in a man who neither earned nor deserved it,” Wildstein said. “I willingly drank the Kool-Aid of a man I knew since I was 15.”
Christie went to high school with Wildstein.
After Christie’s election as governor, Wildstein was appointed to a top patronage post at the Port Authority to a $150,000-a-year position with no job description where he said he served the role of an “enforcer” in the service of the governor.
A spokesman for the governor, in response to the comments made at sentencing, said “Mr. Wildstein devised this outrageous scheme all by himself, coerced others to participate in it and then turned himself in to avoid imprisonment for the crimes he has admitted to committing. That culture at the Port Authority was created by the perpetrator of this conduct — Mr. Wildstein.”
The spokesman, Brian Murray, called Wildstein “a liar who admitted throughout his testimony that he fabricated evidence of a relationship with the governor that never existed to enhance people’s perception of his power, replete with ‘rules’ and ‘sayings’ that existed only in his own mind.”
Robert A. Mintz, former deputy chief of the Organized Crime Strike Force of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey and a criminal defense attorney at McCarter & English said the sentence of probation should come as no surprise.
“Wildstein’s testimony was so critical to the government’s case that without his assistance it is doubtful that anyone would have ever been criminally charged,” he said. “Wildstein was the quintessential insider who was uniquely positioned to take the jury step by step through the plotting of the scheme to create traffic on the bridge and the ensuing conspiracy to cover it up.”
Attorneys for Baroni and Kelly both declined comment.
Outside the courthouse, Acting U.S. Attorney William E. Fitzpatrick told reporters “the conspiracy never would have been exposed, and the individuals responsible never would have been brought to justice” had it not been for Wildstein’s cooperation. He would not directly answer repeated questions about whether he believed Christie knew about the scheme.
“We believe that everybody who you could build a case against, and present a case against, was charged and was convicted,” he said. “Nobody gets off scot-free.”
Fitzpatrick said his office would “never comment” on information Wildstein provided about people outside the lane-closure scandal, except to describe his assistance in the investigation of former Port Authority chairman David Samson as “significant.”
Wildstein and his attorney Alan Zegas left the courthouse without speaking to reporters, ducking into a waiting car before driving south on Mulberry Street.