Former Christie ally, 'Bridgegate' mastermind avoids prison

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(AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File) FILE – In this Sept. 23, 2016, file photo, David Wildstein arrives for a hearing at the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File) FILE – In this Sept. 23, 2016, file photo, David Wildstein arrives for a hearing at the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Newark, N.J.

By DAVID PORTER
Associated Press

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - A former political blogger and high school classmate of Gov. Chris Christie's who masterminded the 2013 George Washington Bridge lane-closing scheme in a misguided political vendetta was sentenced Wednesday to three years of probation, the likely final act in a scandal that swallowed Christie's presidential hopes and contributed to his political decline.

Wildstein, of Sarasota, Florida, faced 21 to 27 months in prison under a plea agreement, but federal prosecutors asked that he get only probation after his testimony last fall helped convict former Christie staffer Bridget Kelly and Wildstein's former supervisor, ex-Port Authority of New York and New Jersey executive Bill Baroni.

The three "put our faith in a man who neither earned it nor deserved it," Wildstein said. "I willingly drank the Kool-Aid of a man I'd known since I was 15 years old."

The three were charged with closing access lanes to the bridge, among the busiest in the world, during a week in September 2013 to cause massive gridlock in Fort Lee, whose Democratic mayor had declined to endorse the Republican governor's re-election. Wildstein was the recipient of an infamous email from Kelly that said, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."

Kelly was sentenced in March to 18 months in prison, and Baroni was sentenced to 24 months. They have appealed their convictions.

Prosecutors told U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton there likely would have been no prosecutions in the case if Wildstein hadn't cooperated.

"He walked into the U.S. attorney's office and said, 'I did this, this is why and this is who I did it with,'" U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes said.

Cortes noted that, unlike Kelly, who deleted some emails related to the scheme, Wildstein turned over voluminous texts and emails that incriminated the others and himself.

The judge also sentenced Wildstein to 500 hours of community service and banned him from working in government.

Christie has denied he knew of the plot and wasn't charged. His spokesman Brian Murray continued to blame Wildstein after the sentencing.

"Mr. Wildstein devised this outrageous scheme all by himself, coerced others to participate in it and then turned himself in to avoid imprisonment for the crimes he has admitted to committing," Murray said.

Wildstein and Christie attended Livingston High School, outside Newark. Christie played catcher on a baseball team and has spoken of his youthful dreams of playing for the New York Mets. Wildstein was the team's statistician and later became a behind-the-scenes political player with a bagful of dirty tricks he was unafraid to use.

Years later their paths crossed again when Christie approved the hiring of Wildstein to a newly created position at the Port Authority, where he was charged with overseeing major capital projects, despite his having no relevant qualifications.

The bridge scandal, dubbed Bridgegate, was bizarre even for New Jersey, where politics is a bare-knuckle affair. Wildstein touched on that in his statement to the court.

"I apologize to the people of New Jersey for magnifying the stereotypes of politics in the state," he said.

The judge criticized a political environment "in which this outrageous conduct was acceptable."

The scandal has left a cloud over Christie's two-term administration, which is in its final months. Christie's approval rating hovered around 70 percent in early 2013; it's now below 20 percent.

His campaign for the GOP presidential nomination foundered, partly due to negative publicity surrounding the story, and he later admitted it was a factor in his not being named as Donald Trump's running mate.

Wildstein, Kelly and Baroni contradicted Christie's account that he didn't know about the traffic jams or their purpose until months afterward. Wildstein testified he and Baroni joked with Christie about traffic problems in Fort Lee while the lane closures were underway, and Kelly testified she told him about the plans to close lanes before they occurred.

Wildstein apologized Wednesday to Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich and told the judge he regrets "a callous decision that served no purpose than to punish one mayor."

"It was stupid," he said. "It was wrong."

Prosecutors revealed Wednesday that Wildstein provided information that helped them in a bribery investigation against another Christie ally, former Port Authority Chairman David Samson.

Samson admitted using his position to pressure United Airlines to revive a flight from Newark to South Carolina, near his weekend home. He was sentenced this year to probation and home confinement.

Former Major League Baseball player Charlie Hayes wrote in a letter to the judge that Wildstein can perform the community service for a nonprofit foundation Hayes has asked him to run.

___

Contact Porter at https://www.twitter.com/DavidPorter_AP

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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