Bridgegate trial kicks off with opening statements

Bill Baroni

Bill Baroni

Opening statements begin Monday in Newark in the trial of two former New Jersey officials accused of conspiring to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge in an act of political retaliation against a  mayor who refused to endorse Gov. Chris Christie’s re-election bid.

Former Port Authority deputy executive director Bill Baroni and Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, are charged with conspiracy, fraud, and depriving residents of their civil rights.

Federal prosecutors say the two defendants orchestrated the 2013 scheme, which caused massive backups at the foot of one of the busiest bridges in the world, to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat.

“These defendants are going to make a case that they were just acting as loyal foot soldiers, carrying out orders from higher levels in the Christie administration,” said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University.

Christie, a Republican, has not been charged with a crime and denies having knowledge of the operation.

David Wildstein, a Christie appointee at the Port Authority who reported to Baroni, pleaded guilty and is expected to testify at trial against Kelly and his former boss.

While prosecutors have alluded to a pattern of political retaliation inside the governor’s office, others including Christie, have pinned the blame on a few rogue employees.

“It’s hard to see this as the tip of an iceberg,” said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. “Rather it’s just it’s own peculiar iceberg.”

But experts said the scandal undoubtedly harmed Christie’s political ambitions, including his failed bid for the Republican nomination for president this year.

Christie also acknowledged in an interview earlier this week that Bridgegate likely played a role in Republican nominee Donald Trump’s decision not to pick Christie as his vice presidential nominee.

“The Bridgegate trial is going to really help form a legacy for Chris Christie — and probably one that he didn’t want,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.

“While he may well not be part of anything that was criminal or alleged to be criminal,” said Dworkin, “the fact is that it’s still going to reflect on him.”

The trial is expected to last six weeks.

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