NEWARK, N.J. — The investigation of politically motivated lane closures of the George Washington Bridge in 2013 heads to court Monday as two former political allies of Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie make initial appearances.
Christie's former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, and his former top appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Bill Baroni, arrived to face charges in a nine-count indictment unsealed Friday after a yearlong investigation.
Kelly said Friday she is innocent; a defense lawyer also said Baroni is innocent. Baroni will make his first public comments on the case after the hearing.
David Wildstein, who went to high school with Christie and later became a top official in the Port Authority, pleaded guilty Friday to two criminal counts. He admitted that he helped plot lane closures in Fort Lee on an approach to the world's busiest bridge as political payback against that community's Democratic mayor for failing to support Christie's re-election campaign.
"If David Wildstein was willing to repeatedly lie to settle a petty political grudge, nobody should be surprised at his eagerness to concoct any story that he thinks will help him stay out of federal prison," said Baroni's lawyer Michael Baldassarre. "We're confident that everyone will see this desperate ploy for exactly what this is."
Christie has not been implicated in the criminal case.
Here are some related aspects.
CHRISTIE AND 2016
The charges provide mixed news for Christie as he tries to regain momentum in support of an expected presidential bid.
Christie appears to have been cleared of any allegations that he personally participated in the scheme, but the charges brought by the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey still hit close to home.
Christie's aides and backers hope the developments will allow the governor to put this chapter behind him less than a year before the first presidential primaries, even as legal proceedings have just begun. In many ways, the outcome was the best he could have hoped for — little new information and no names mentioned beyond those Christie had already cut ties to.
PORT AUTHORITY REFORM:
The indictments and the still-looming investigation involving the former chairman of the Port Authority have underlined the need for reform at the agency. David Samson wasn't mentioned, meaning the separate investigation stemming from his time as chairman could yield further embarrassment for the bistate authority.
But despite the scandals, its leadership is optimistic.
Port Authority Chairman John Degnan said there's an opportunity to learn from the indictments, "if there's anything we missed that we should do."
"In the seeds of disaster were the potential for reform. I view the indictments as another step in the healing process, reformation process," Degnan, who was appointed by Christie last year after Samson resigned, told The Associated Press last week.
Degnan stressed that the agency's new whistleblower policy is "one of the most aggressive in the country." Degnan said the agency supports employees who come forward if they see any potential violations, a policy he said could have avoided the lane-closing scandal since some employees likely were afraid to report the actions of superiors.
New Jersey 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 any connection to a politically motivated lane closing. But the Democrat-led Legislature has also racked up some $1 million in legal fees.
The state accrued costs for outside legal counsel used to represent state employees involved in the probe, and Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich says the borough's legal fees have topped $200,000.
It's unclear exactly how much federal cash has gone into the probe. U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said his office does not track how much the investigation costs, but added that every investigation is different and requires differing amounts of resources.
Associated Press writer Michael Catalini in Trenton contributed to this story.