Ex-Christie allies plead not guilty in bridge case
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) -- Two former political allies of Gov. Chris Christie pleaded not guilty Monday to charges they were involved in politically motivated lane closures of the George Washington Bridge, and the attorney for one vowed to subpoena her former colleagues to prove her innocence.
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, entered the pleas through their attorneys in the nine-count indictment unsealed Friday after a yearlong investigation.
Christie has not been implicated in the criminal case, but Kelly's attorney, Michael Critchley, didn't rule out serving a subpoena on the governor.
"I am going to subpoena anybody who I feel is necessary to establish my client's innocence," Critchley said after Monday's brief proceeding. "That could include anybody."
On Friday, Kelly told reporters that it was "ludicrous" for the indictment to suggest that she was the only person in Christie's office who was aware of the bridge issue.
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 in 2013 as political payback against that community's Democratic mayor for failing to support Christie's re-election campaign.
He implicated Kelly and Baroni, the then-deputy executive director of the Port Authority, who were named in a nine-count indictment.
In his first public words in more than a year Monday, Baroni denied the charges and said he would testify in court.
"I would never risk my career, my job and my reputation for something like this," Baroni said. "I am an innocent man."
It was also announced Monday that Baroni has left his position as counsel to the law firm of Hill Wallack.
Robert W. Bacso, the firm's managing partner, issued a statement saying Baroni left "in order to totally focus his efforts on his defense and the vindication of his reputation."
Kelly didn't talk to reporters Monday but also said she was innocent at a news conference on Friday.
Bail for both was set at $150,000, and U.S. District Court Judge Susan Wigenton set a tentative trial date of July 7.
Forcing a sitting governor to testify in a criminal trial in which he wasn't a defendant would be difficult, according to Robert Mintz, a former assistant U.S. attorney now in private practice. A defense lawyer would have to offer specifics to show a judge how the testimony could possibly exonerate a defendant.
"High-ranking government officials like an attorney general or a governor would be dragged into litigation all the time, both civil and potentially criminal, if they were allowed to be subpoenaed merely because a plaintiff or defendant wanted to bring them into court," Mintz said.
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.
A Monmouth University poll of 500 New Jersey residents conducted from Friday through Sunday and released on Monday found that half believe Christie was personally involved in the decision to close the toll lanes. Sixty-nine percent don't believe he's been completely honest about what he knew.
Less than one in 10 believe the three individuals who've been charged in the scheme were the only ones involved. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
Several recent polls have found Christie's job approval rating in the state has also sunk to an all-time low.
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.
Colvin reported from Washington, D.C.