If you’re unfamiliar with the Bridgegate scandal affecting our neighbor to the east, you probably haven’t been paying attention to the last three years of ramp-up coverage on the 2016 presidential election. For the uninitiated, there was a time when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was a popular governor and a serious candidate for that high office.
When Christie ran for reelection in 2013, however, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich didn’t endorse him. Shortly afterward, the Fort Lee side of the George Washington Bridge suffered some extremely inconvenient lane closures — on the first day of the school year.
At the time, Christie and his administration claimed the lane closures were part of a long-planned Port Authority traffic study; nothing to do with Sokolich. But that now appears not to be true. Among other evidence, an investigation turned up an email from Christie’s then-deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly to then-Port Authority appointee David Wildstein saying it was “time for traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Well, David Wildstein pled guilty to two federal counts of conspiracy today and pointed fingers at Kelly and at Bill Boroni, former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. At the same time, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman unsealed an indictment in which Kelly and Boroni are charged with nine federal counts of conspiracy, fraudulent conversion, wire fraud, and deprivation of the civil rights of Fort Lee residents.
“Public officials must use government resources for proper government purposes,” the federal prosecutor explained. “The indictment alleges, and Wildstein admitted, that the three defendants used Port Authority resources to exact political retribution against a public official who would not endorse the Governor for re-election, and concocted and promoted a bogus cover story to execute their plan and to cover their tracks.”
A conviction on the most serious charges could get them up to 20 years in federal prison.
In the face of dramatic, possibly criminal events involving political payback, it’s easy to assume that everyone involved is guilty. We sometimes forget that we’ve only heard the prosecution’s side of the story.
The media wants to cover exciting scandals and fascinating crimes right away, so they read the charge sheet or the federal indictment and, often enough, call it done. The real test of these charges is, as always, whether prosecutors can prove them beyond a reasonable doubt.