TRENTON, N.J. — A nearly yearlong investigation into the 2013 lane George Washington Bridge Lane closures resulted in two indictments and a guilty plea — and New Jersey taxpayers have already footed some of the bill.
U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman announced Friday that former Port Authority official David Wildstein pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges while one-time Port Authority executive Bill Baroni and a former deputy chief of staff to Gov. Chris Christie, Bridget Kelly, have also been indicted.
While the charges are new, the public relations battle over what Christie knew and when he knew has raged for more than a year, with lawyers' fees accumulating at the same time.
NEW JERSEY PAYS
Residents have paid about $10 million in legal costs related to the closure, according to an AP review of documents from the Legislature and the Department of Law and Public Safety.
The largest share — about $7.3 million — went for the governor's outside counsel, the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which produced a report that cleared the governor of a connection to the politically motivated lane closure. But the Democrat-led Legislature has also racked up some $1 million in legal fees.
The state also accrued costs for outside legal counsel used to represent state employees involved in the probe. Mark Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee, whose town was ensnarled in traffic and who was the target of the political retribution scheme, says the borough's legal fees have topped $200,000.
It's unclear exactly how much federal cash has gone into the probe. Fishman said his office does not track how much the investigation costs, but added that every investigation is different and has requires differing amounts of resources. "It has been my policy for the five and a half years I have been U.S. attorney to make sure that every investigation, no matter how large or how small or how high profile or how under the radar, gets exactly the resources that it needs to make sure that when we are done we can say proudly and fairly that we have done the best job that we can," he said.
The indictment charges that Kelly and Baroni used Port Authority property worth at least $5,000 as part of the scheme to exact political payback. The documents do not estimate the worth of using the Port Authority's resources, but they allege Kelly, Baroni and Wildstein ordered engineering reports as part of a cover story about a traffic study to divert lanes on the George Washington Bridge, one of the busiest in the world.
POLITICAL PRICE TAG
As Christie weighs a White House bid, some political observers say the financial cost of investigating the scandal probably won't have much of an effect on voters' opinions.
"It's probably not a very big deal in the grand scheme of things," said Fairleigh Dickinson University political science professor Peter Woolley. "People have a picture of what happened ... and the picture is already worth many thousands of words, maybe 10 million."
Seton Hall University political science professor Matthew Hale said many people already have firm opinions on the scandal and the cost isn't likely to anger them further.
"Most people in New Jersey just throw up their hands on the amount of money that gets spent on crazy stuff," he said. "It's not new."