Wednesday, Jul. 12, 2017

'Bridgegate' saga nears end as mastermind faces sentencing

By By DAVID PORTER

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — One was a high school baseball player in the late 1970s who dreamed of playing for the New York Mets but went on to become a federal prosecutor and, ultimately, governor. Less athletically inclined, the other was the baseball team's statistician who became a behind-the-scenes political player with a bagful of dirty tricks he was unafraid to use.

Years later their paths came full circle in the saga known as "Bridgegate," the bizarre tale of traffic-jams-as-political-payback that took aback even hardened observers of New Jersey's bare-knuckle political arena.

David Wildstein, the statistician, will be sentenced in federal court Wednesday for his role in orchestrating the scheme to close access lanes at the George Washington Bridge in September 2013 that brought down two former allies of Republican Gov. Chris Christie, including his former deputy chief of staff.

Christie, the former Livingston High School catcher who is nearing the end of his two-term stay in the Statehouse, wasn't charged but saw his presidential aspirations run aground by a scandal that dragged on for more than three years.

Wildstein's fate is uncertain. Under terms of his guilty plea in 2015 he could be sentenced to 21 to 27 months in prison, but prosecutors have asked U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton to give him probation, possibly with community service, as a reward for his cooperation.

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. Wildstein also is collaborating on a book with former Yankee pitcher Fritz Peterson.

Wildstein's testimony helped convict former Christie staffer Bridget Kelly and Wildstein's former supervisor, former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey executive Bill Baroni, last fall. Wildstein testified he used his position at the Port Authority to lead a scheme to close lanes near the bridge to punish Democratic Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie's 2013 re-election bid.

Kelly and Baroni were sentenced to 18 and 24 months in prison, respectively, in March. Both have appealed their convictions.

"Were it not for Wildstein's decision to cooperate and disclose the true nature of the lane reductions, there likely would have been no prosecutions related to the Bridge Scheme," prosecutors wrote in a letter to the judge released Tuesday.

Wildstein's sentencing will bring an end to a sordid saga that has left a cloud over Christie's administration. The scandal contributed to his approval rating falling from around 70 percent to 15 percent.

Wildstein was a political blogger and operative who admitted engaging in chicanery that included stealing the suit jacket of an opposition candidate right before a U.S. Senate campaign debate. Christie, who claimed the two weren't friends in high school, approved hiring him to a position at the Port Authority ostensibly overseeing billions of dollars in infrastructure projects in the New York area.

While defense attorneys and some Port Authority officials characterized Wildstein as lacking in relevant experience for the job — and being universally disliked for his abrasive style — a court filing by Wildstein's attorney described him as having business savvy that helped him in "peeling back red tape" so that major agency infrastructure projects could be realized.

Wildstein and both defendants 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 the governor about the plans to close lanes before they occurred.

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

2017-07-12 13:57:07 GMT

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