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Acquittal, new trial rejected in bridge lane closing case

By DAVID PORTER
March 02, 2017 12:57 PM

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — A New Jersey judge turned down an appeal by two former aides to Republican Gov. Chris Christie who were convicted in a plot to cause traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge in what prosecutors alleged was a political vendetta against a local politician.

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The judge on Wednesday rejected requests by Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni for an acquittal and new trial.

Both were convicted in November of purposely causing gridlock for four days in September 2013 by reducing access lanes to the bridge, which links Fort Lee, New Jersey, with New York City. The scheme allegedly was carried out to punish Fort Lee's Democratic mayor for not endorsing Christie, a Republican, in his successful re-election bid.

At the time, Kelly was deputy chief of staff to Christie, and Baroni was a top Christie appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge. Both testified they believed the lane realignment was part of a legitimate traffic study conceived by then-Port Authority official David Wildstein.

Wildstein, a former political blogger and high school classmate of Christie's, pleaded guilty and testified against Kelly and Baroni.

Christie has denied any prior knowledge of the bridge plot and wasn't charged.

Kelly's attorney wrote in the appeal that U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton should have instructed jurors they could have acquitted the defendants if the government didn't prove the alleged conspiracy was aimed at punishing Mayor Mark Sokolich.

The government argued jurors only had to prove Baroni and Kelly conspired to misapply the property of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — the bridge — and not the reason they did it.

"Because it is not an element of the offenses charged, the government was under no obligation to introduce evidence of motive, although motive helps present a coherent narrative of events to a jury," Wigenton wrote Wednesday.

Wigenton also dismissed Baroni's and Kelly's arguments that the laws under which they were charged are vague, and concluded the evidence introduced at trial was sufficient for a jury to conclude the defendants understood what they were doing was wrong.

"The government produced evidence that defendants concealed the real reason for the lane closures from Port Authority personnel, Fort Lee officials, the New Jersey Legislature and the media both during and after the closures occurred," she wrote.

Kelly and Baroni face up to 20 years in prison on the most serious charges when they are sentenced on March 15, but U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said on the day of the verdicts that they likely will receive far less time.

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By DAVID PORTER

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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