Andrew Kelly / Reuters

Former Christie ally pleads guilty in bridge scandal

David Wildstein, an official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, admits role in political payback scheme

A former ally of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pleaded guilty Friday to helping engineer traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge in a political payback scheme he said also involved two other Christie loyalists. But he did not publicly implicate Christie himself.

The scandal has cast a long shadow over Christie's White House prospects in 2016. The Republican governor has insisted all along that he knew nothing about the scheme.

David Wildstein, 53, an official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey at the time of the tie-ups, pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy. He was released on his own recognizance on a $100,000 bond. The judge in the case cited his cooperation with prosecutors for the release term.

Wildstein faces up to two years in prison and is scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 6

In court, Wildstein said that he came up with the scheme along with Bridget Kelly, who was Christie's deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, who was Christie's top appointee at the Port Authority.

While Wildstein did not say Christie was involved, Wildstein's lawyer, Alan Zegas, repeated his contention from last year that there is evidence that Christie knew about the lane closings as they were happening.

Michael Critchley, a lawyer for Kelly, said he has been told she would be indicted. Baroni's lawyer, Michael Baldassare, said he had not received word about his client.

Wildstein said they orchestrated the scheme to start on the first day of school to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, a town at the foot of the bridge, for not endorsing Christie's re-election bid.

Two of the three access lanes to the bridge in Fort Lee were shut down for four mornings in September 2013, causing huge delays.

Wildstein said they also agreed to cover it up by claiming the lane closings were part of a traffic study. And he said they agreed to ignore complaints from town Mayor Mark Sokolich.

Before Wildstein appeared in court, Christie declined to comment Friday as he left a hotel in McLean, Virginia. But on Wednesday, when asked about impending action in the case, he brushed off the potential impact.

"I don't think that has anything much to do with me," he said.

The scandal broke wide open more than a year ago when an email from Kelly to Wildstein was revealed. It read, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." Wildstein's reply: "Got it."

By the time that email was made public, Wildstein had resigned, as had Baroni. The governor soon after fired Kelly and cut ties with Bill Stepien, his two-time campaign manager. Stepien was not mentioned in Friday's court hearing.

Questions over whether the lanes were closed for political retribution have been dogging Christie for more than a year. Christie has been gearing up for a 2016 presidential campaign but has not announced he is running. 

Christie, who has yet to decide whether he will seek the White House, was seen a few months ago as one of the top Republican contenders for the party's nomination but has since been eclipsed by others, including Florida Governor Jeb Bush and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. 

Wire services

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