Testimony in the Bridgegate trial ended Wednesday with lies, tears–and the certainty justice will not be served. Justice won’t be served because not everyone responsible for the prankish but perilous shut-down of the George Washington Bridge three years ago will be held accountable by this and any other forum.
LIES–because both a prosecutor and a defense lawyer ended their questioning of co-defendant Bridge Anne Kelly by leading her through how her testimony disagreed with that of other witnesses–and how those other witnesses disagreed with each other.
Vikas Khanna, the assistant US attorney, ticked off the testimony of seven witnesses–most of them minor players in this drama–and asked her to agree they differed from her own, especially on questions of whether Kelly wanted to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for failing to endorse Gov. Chris Christie for re-election.
“I’m telling you all of them have a different recollection than mine –but their livelihoods depend on Chris Christie,” she said, fighting back tears.
Then her lawyer, Michael Critchley, took over on redirect and led his client through the last bit of testimony the jury will ever hear in this case.
Critchley mentioned one name–then asked whether Kelly heard that testimony contradict that of a second. Then he listed a third, and a fourth, and, in an almost dazzling display of verbal juggling–one that drove prosecutors to their feet to object–the defense lawyer made the point that virtually every witness who testified told different stories, both about each other and about Kelly’s version.
Lies. Someone, obviously, was lying. More than just one someone.
TEARS–By this time, Kelly–for not the first time in her testimony–was in tears and the testimony part of the trial ended like this:
Critchley: “Have you testified truthfully?”
“Are you innocent of these charges?”
Kelly was done.
NO JUSTICE–It was, of course, no surprise–just part of a typical jury charge–but still there was something significant, maybe even poignant, in Judge Susan Wigenton’s routine reading of the instructions to the jury that followed the end of testimony.
Although most judges wait until after closing arguments to charge the jury, Wigenton, say courtroom observers, often opts to give her instructions to the jurors first. She did it this time.
This was what was significant: The judge spoke to a question that clearly had to be on the minds of most, if not all, the jurors: Why weren’t others in the dock alongside the two defendants, Kelly, a former deputy chief of staff to Gov. Christie, and Bill Baroni, a former deputy director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey? Both have been charged with conspiracy, fraud, and depriving the residents of Fort Lee of their constitutional right to travel without impediment.
Wigenton read from a section of her charge called “Persons not on trial” and the courtroom all but filled with imaginary images conjured up during testimony in the last five weeks. Christie, who never appeared at trial, giving his approval and dropping f-bombs, according to Kelly’s testimony. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who may or may not have played a part in suppressing information about the traffic study. Bill Stepien, Christie’s campaign manager and Kelly’s mentor and predecessor, who communicated with others while the orange cones were stacked up on the pavement to block access to the GWB toll booths. David Samson, New Jersey’s former attorney general and then chairman of the Port Authority’s board of commissioners, who would, according to more than one witness, “retaliate” against “the New York side” for stopping the study. Kevin O’Dowd, Christie’s chief of staff and Kelly’s direct boss.
Where the hell were they all?
Not indicted, that’s for sure. Not officially implicated. Not labeled “unindicted co-conspirators.” Not called to testify.
Just ghosts in a courtroom because, Judge Wigenton told the jurors, they should draw “no inferences” from the failure of the prosecution to bring them to court.
“You should not speculate about their absence,” the judge said.
Try that mental exercise. Try thinking about Bridgegate and not speculating about Christie’s role.
(I’m going to tell you not to think of an elephant right now–don’t do it. Ah, you did it. See, told you.)
So, in the end, if truth is justice, there will be no justice coming out of this trial–whether either Baroni or Kelly or both is convicted or acquitted. The people of New Jersey–those who care, anyway–will never find out what really happened. One definition of justice has to be this: People deserve to know what our powerful political leaders have done to harm us. Not going to happen.
Sure, it looks bad for these two defendants. They both told versions of what happened and their role in the saga but, by the time they got through cross-examination by prosecutors, their stories were shot through with holes. Because the point of a trial is not to test or find truth, but for each side to present the best possible version.
At the end of his testimony, Baroni got caught in what appeared to be a lie about possible plans to shut down traffic in Jersey City and was depicted in a video telling an unbelievable story about the traffic jams to the Legislature. Kelly was confronted both with contradictory testimony and her admitted deletion of incriminating emails.
“I did it because I was scared,” she said. And she was scared because, suddenly, all those people around her couldn’t remember what she told them and she was alone and “petrified.” Baroni said he really believed his friend and aide–David Wildstein, Christie’s eyes, ears and mouth at the Port Authority–really was a conducting a traffic study.
The prosecution made both Baroni and Kelly look bad and it was convincing about their intention of hurting Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie–but what the prosecution didn’t do, what it was never going to do, what US Attorney Paul Fishman didn’t even attempt to do is tell the whole, truthful story of Bridgegate.
Does anyone really believe that Kelly, on her own, commandeered the resources of both the governor’s office and the Port Authority? Does anyone really believe–despite the $8 million New Jersey taxpayers spent on the Mastro whitewash–that Christie and his men in Trenton were not aware of what was going on and played no role?
The judicial system’s version of justice will play out to its inevitable end. I think it’s likely the two people who alone were caught on Fishman’s hook will be found guilty of at least one charge and will spend months, if not years, in federal prison. The trial was fair and well-conducted by Judge Wigenton, a good judge who ran a tight courtroom.
But the truth won’t ever be known to us out here in the cheap seats.
And all the others–besides Baroni and Kelly– will go on to live out their lives as lawyers, power brokers, politicians, consultants, even, perhaps, judges, free of any chance of incrimination. Why there’s even the chance that Christie and others will become national leaders if Donald Trump becomes president.
Baroni and Kelly will have paid for their sins, too, as well as their own.