Gov. Chris Christie avoids targeted charges in continuation of Bridgegate trial
Over two years have passed since two of the three access lanes to the George Washington Bridge were abruptly closed. In that time, the investigation into what has since been deemed as Bridgegate has led to the resignation and subsequent conviction of two state employees.
Yet no repercussions have directly affected the man at the heart of the scandal, Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.).
“I certainly think he should be charged,” Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-N.J.) said. “I have sponsored legislation that supported that, but he wouldn’t sign it. One of the reasons I’m running for governor is because the Democratic leadership failed to get the ball moving to appoint a special prosecutor. I believe that while he may not have known about it ahead of time, he was up to his eyeballs in the cover-up. That’s official misconduct and he should be held accountable for that.”
Anti-Christie sentiments reach farther than just the state government. Alysa Catalano, a junior in the School of Arts and Sciences, agrees with the opinion of Lesniak. In her mind, Christie is a criminal, she said.
“I think it’s disrespectful to the citizens of New Jersey to not put Chris Christie on trial,” she said. “Anyone else would have been indicted, but because he’s the governor he gets to shift the blame to his staff. I thought Republicans called themselves the party of personal responsibility?”
But not all New Jersey residents are on the same page regarding Bridgegate. John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics and director of the Center on the American Governor (CAG), has a different take on Christie’s involvement in the scandal. Weingart said the evidence presented does not point toward Christie.
“There is no evidence that supports the idea that Christie demanded that the lanes of the George Washington bridge be closed,” he said. “However, I think his staff sought to exact some form of a prank or political revenge to get back at Sokolich for his lack of support of the Christie campaign.”
Christie was not at the helm of the decision making in regards to the lane closures, Weingart said. While the governor himself could have potentially been involved in the ordeal, the lack of evidence supporting this claim ensures a trial against Christie will not occur.
“I don’t think he ordered the lane closure,” Weingart said. “My impression is that there’s very little chance he will go to trial, though that could change. I’m no lawyer, but if criminal charges were going to be brought up against Christie, I think that would have happened already.”
With each passing day, the chances of Christie going to trial become slimmer. New revelations regarding the lane closures have been consistently popping up from the start of the legislative committee investigation. Weingart said that the Bridgegate has persisted for so long due to the nature of the scandal.
“One of the features that kept the story alive was that it was so bizarre as to why a campaign that was expected win overwhelmingly, would go out of their way to punish one politician who didn’t endorse Christie,” he said. “Also, it’s not clear to me how Mayor Sokolich was going to learn that the lane closings were political retaliation.”
Weingart said that while Bridgegate may be outlandish in today’s political landscape, the scandal shares many similarities with Watergate. He noted that both scandals were born out of the hubris of each administration. Weingart explains that staffers aimed to please Christie, regardless of appropriate ethics.
“This culture was created, in which those working for Christie were encouraged to go past what was considered socially acceptable in order to please their boss,” he said. “I would compare the hubris of Christie’s campaign to that of (former President Richard) Nixon’s reelection campaign in 1972. There was no doubt that Nixon was going to be reelected, but members of his campaign staff felt it was okay to break into a hotel and a psychiatrist’s office. That campaign environment created the Watergate scandal in the same way that Christie’s campaign led to Bridgegate.”
The Bridgegate scandal was born on Aug. 13, 2013, when email interactions between former Deputy Chief of Staff to Christie, Bridget Anne Kelly, and David Wildstein, a Port Authority officer appointed by Christie, revealed the plot to exact revenge on Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote in her email to Wildstein. Angry at Sokolich for his refusal to endorse Christie’s reelection, Kelly colluded with Wildstein and deputy director of the Port Authority, Bill Baroni. This was retaliation against what they called “Buono voters” living in the city.
In the aftermath of the lane closures on Sept. 9, 2013, the New Jersey state assembly formed a special legislative committee to lead the investigation into the matter. The committee discovered the email correspondence between Kelly and Wildstein, which contradicted the Port Authority’s claims that the lane closures were a part of a traffic study.
Ultimately, Wildstein’s confession in federal court regarding the lane closure plot and cover-up led to the convictions of both Kelly and Baroni. Despite this, a dossier of conspirators, yet to be indicted, remains classified in the hands of the special legislative committee, according to U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton.
Wigenton later ruled that the list should be made public. Many inside the state assembly are speculating that the names may end up linking Christie directly to the scandal.
This could be a lesson for both parties to take to heart, Weingart said. Christie arguably exemplifies how political figures with high potential can have their career cut short, largely based on allegations. Christie suffered extensively, whether or not he was personally involved in his staff’s unethical behavior.
“I think the major importance of this scandal is really the role it played in sinking the political career of Chris Christie," Weingart said. "I would argue that if Bridgegate had not come to light, there’s a reasonably good chance that Chris Christie would be president right now."
Daniel Israel is a junior in the School of Arts and Sciences. He is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum.