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3 former Christie allies charged in bridge scandal

By DAVID PORTER and JILL COLVIN
Associated Press

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - Three former allies of Gov. Chris Christie were charged Friday in the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal that has cast a long shadow over Christie's 2016 White House prospects, and one of them pleaded guilty.

Christie himself was not publicly implicated - and he appeared to be in the clear for now.

"Based on the evidence currently available to us, we're not going to charge anyone else in this scheme," U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said at a news conference.

David Wildstein, a former high-ranking official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy charges, saying in court that he and two other Christie loyalists closed lanes and engineered huge traffic jams in September 2013 as political payback against a Democratic mayor.

He also said the three of them concocted a cover story: It was all part of a traffic study.

Wildstein could face about two years in prison at sentencing Aug. 6.

The two people he implicated - former Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni, who was the governor's top appointee at the Port Authority - were charged in an indictment unsealed later in the day.

Wildstein gave no indication in court that Christie had any role in the scheme. But after the hearing, his lawyer, Alan Zegas, reiterated a claim he made last year that there's evidence that Christie knew about it as it happened.

The Republican governor has insisted all along that he knew nothing about the plot.

Before Wildstein's court appearance, 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 it off, saying: "I don't think that has anything much to do with me."

Some of Christie's critics have suggested that even if he had no direct role in it, his brusque - some say bullying - political style created a climate that led members of his administration to think they could get away with such tactics.

Asked about that, Fishman said: "I won't comment on culture."

Kelly and Baroni are due in court Monday on charges including conspiracy, fraud and deprivation of civil rights. The fraud charge alone carries up to 20 years in prison. Their lawyers planned news conferences Friday to discuss the charges.

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." That exchange was key in the indictment.

The closing of two of three access lanes caused monumental gridlock at the George Washington Bridge, one of the busiest spans in the nation, linking New Jersey with New York City. School buses and emergency vehicles were held up, and commuters were stuck in traffic for hours over four mornings.

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

Christie, who coasted to re-election in the fall of 2013, has called the scheme "stupid" and ridiculed the notion that he was even interested in an endorsement from Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich.

By the time the incriminating 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 indicted.

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.

___

Associated Press reporters Geoff Mulvihill in Trenton and Ken Thomas in McLean, Virginia, contributed to this article.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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