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Christie Staffer Pleads Guilty For Role In 'Bridgegate' Scandal
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Christie Staffer Pleads Guilty For Role In 'Bridgegate' Scandal

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Christie Staffer Pleads Guilty For Role In 'Bridgegate' Scandal

Christie Staffer Pleads Guilty For Role In 'Bridgegate' Scandal
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David Wildstein, Gov. Chris Christie's top staffer at the Port Authority, admitted to his role in orchestrating lane closures on the George Washington Bridge as political payback.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Today in New Jersey, a key figure in the so-called Bridgegate scandal pleaded guilty and two more top aids to Republican Governor Chris Christie are under indictment. All three were allegedly involved in a plot to tie up traffic leading to the George Washington Bridge. It was retaliation against a local mayor. The scandal has been a problem for Christie, who's expected to run for president. Matt Katz of member station WNYC reports.

MATT KATZ, BYLINE: In 2013, Christie was running for re-election. The Christie campaign was trying to woo Democrats to build his margin of victory in a blue state and make him more marketable as a 2016 presidential candidate. He ran ads stressing bipartisanship.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Working with Democrats and Republicans - believing that as long as you stick to your principles, compromise isn't a dirty word.

KATZ: A centerpiece of his campaign was scoring Democratic endorsements. A Christie ally, David Wildstein, intervened in one of those endorsements. Wildstein was a top official at the Port Authority, an agency that operates the bridge and tunnel crossings between New York and New Jersey. The mayor of Fort Lee, the town at the foot of the agency's George Washington Bridge, had refused to endorse Christie's re-election.

So Wildstein decided to punish him. He told a federal judge today in Newark that he retaliated against the mayor by ordering three entrance lanes to the world's busiest bridge reduced to one. The result was chaos on the streets of Fort Lee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: At 211, Fort Lee traffic is a nightmare. The G.W. Bridge is totally gridlocked. If you can come up maybe Fort Lee Road or something to that effect.

KATZ: The traffic jam delayed emergency vehicles and buses carrying children to their first day of school. Cars were backed-up for hours at a time. This went on for four mornings in a row. Following a 16-month federal investigation, Wildstein has pleaded guilty to two fraud charges and implicated two other top Christie appointees.

One is former Christie Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly, who wrote an email to Wildstein that seemed to toward order the lane closures. It read "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman also said Bill Baroni, Christie's top staffer at the Port Authority, helped concoct the scheme and cover it up by falsely claiming the traffic jam was due to a Port Authority traffic study.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL FISHMAN: They callously victimized the people of Fort Lee who were just trying to get to school, go to work or travel wherever else they needed to go. The laws of the United States do not permit this kind of behavior and the public has the right to expect better.

KATZ: Today, a federal grand jury indicted Baroni and Kelly on nine federal counts related to fraud, the misuse of public resources and a conspiracy against civil rights for restricting the use of public roadways. Both have proclaimed their innocence and called Wildstein a liar.

The good news for Christie is that Fishman said he currently had no evidence to charge him with a crime. Christie initially argued that the traffic study was real, but he later fired those involved. Christie released a statement on Twitter that read, "I had no knowledge or involvement in the planning or execution of this act." But with trials looming, questions are likely to linger through a possible presidential campaign. Wildstein's lawyers say evidence exists that Christie knew about the lane closures while they were happening. And Kelly said this today...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIDGET KELLY: For the indictment to suggest that I was the only person in the governor's office who was aware of the George Washington Bridge issue is ludicrous.

KATZ: A courthouse drama with new tidbits about who knew what when could play out just as Christie's trying to campaign for president, and that's in addition to another federal corruption investigation that is ongoing. It involves David Samson, the former chairman of the Port Authority, and a man Christie has called his mentor. For NPR News, I'm Matt Katz.

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