The self-styled mastermind behind politically motivated traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge in 2013 is being spared federal prison.
David Wildstein, a former official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was sentenced to three years probation Wednesday. He is also barred from holding any position with any government agency. Two other people convicted in the scheme got up to two years in prison.
Wildstein previously pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy in exchange for testifying against his two co-defendants in the so-called Bridgegate case.
“The residents of New Jersey should have been the one constituent that you cared about,” said Judge Susan Wigenton in federal court in Newark. “But it’s important to note … only you have admitted your role and fully accepted responsibility for your actions.”
“There clearly was a culture and environment in the governor’s office that somehow made this conduct seem acceptable,” she said.
The sentencing caps off a nearly four-year saga plaguing the administration of Republican Gov. Chris Christie, whose popularity at the start of his second term fell off a cliff after the political scandal.
Wildstein testified during the trial that he orchestrated the lane closures in Fort Lee during the first week of school in September 2013 to punish the town’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, who refused to endorse Christie for re-election that year.
The governor’s administration had been courting endorsements from Democratic mayors across the state in the run-up to the 2013 race in an attempt to show Christie’s cross-party appeal.
The lane closures caused what Sokolich called “concrete gridlock” in the town just across the Hudson River from New York City, stranding ambulances and school buses along with thousands of commuters in morning rush hour traffic. After four days, Port Authority head Patrick Foye, a New York state appointee, ordered the lanes re-opened.
At the time New Jersey officials claimed that the lane closures were part of a traffic study, a phony explanation Wildstein said he devised to hide the political motives behind the plot.
Ultimately two other Christie officials would be charged for their roles in Bridgegate: former deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly and former Port Authority deputy executive director Bill Baroni.
Kelly sent the now infamous email to Wildstein that read, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Baroni, Christie’s top appointee at the Port Authority and a former state senator, testified before the state Legislature that the lane closures had been part of a legitimate traffic study.
Both testified at trial that Wildstein hoodwinked them unknowingly into the revenge plot and that they had acted in good faith. But the jury did not buy it. In November both defendants were found guilty on charges including conspiracy, wire fraud, and civil rights violations for disrupting interstate travel.
Judge Wigenton later sentenced Kelly to 18 months in federal prison and Baroni to two years behind bars. Both have filed appeals.
Christie has denied any knowledge of the political revenge plot and has never been charged with a crime.
Wildstein was Christie’s high school classmate and also a former influential, anonymous political blogger and operative known for his sometimes dirty tactics. At trial Wildstein testified that he once stole the jacket of former U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg ahead of a senatorial debate to try to rattle the Democrat before he went on stage.
“I apologize to the people to the state of New Jersey for magnifying the stereotype of politics in this state,” Wildstein said at his sentencing Wednesday.
“I willingly drank the Kool-Aid of a man I had known since I was 15 years old.”
“I spent the past three and a half years trying to make amends. I am sincerely sorry.”