By Joseph Ax
NEWARK, N.J. (Reuters) - Two former allies of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie deliberately closed access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in a "vicious" and unlawful political revenge scheme, a federal prosecutor said on Friday at the close of their criminal trial.
Bridget Kelly, the governor's former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, abused their power to create a massive traffic jam in order to punish a local mayor for failing to back Christie's re-election campaign, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes told jurors in Newark, New Jersey.
"As cruel and callous as that scheme was, what makes it unlawful was that they misused government resources to carry it out," Cortes said in closing arguments at federal court in Newark, New Jersey.
Baroni's lawyer is expected to deliver his closing argument later on Friday.
The Port Authority operates the George Washington Bridge, said by the agency to be the world's busiest.
Kelly and Baroni are charged with fraud, conspiracy and depriving residents of Fort Lee, New Jersey, of their civil rights. Former Port Authority executive David Wildstein has pleaded guilty and appeared as the government's star witness.
Christie has not been charged and has steadfastly denied any advance knowledge of the plan. But Wildstein, Baroni and Kelly all testified that they told the governor some details about the lane closures either beforehand or while they were occurring.
The so-called "Bridgegate" scandal tarnished Christie's national reputation, damaging his unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination. The trial has cast an unflattering light on Christie as a temperamental bully whose administration used the Port Authority to hand out favors, and penalties, to local officials.
Kelly and Baroni, both of whom testified in their own defense, said they were duped by Wildstein and his claim that the lane closures were part of a legitimate traffic study.
But Cortes warned jurors not to be fooled by that "preposterous" assertion, pointing to Kelly's now-infamous email to Wildstein in which she wrote, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," as evidence of her guilt.
During his closing argument, Cortes showed jurors numerous messages sent among Kelly, Wildstein and Baroni suggesting they deliberately ignored Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich's desperate pleas for help as the gridlock became untenable, delaying first responders and stranding school buses for hours.
At one point, Wildstein told Baroni that his response to Sokolich should be "radio silence."
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Tom Brown)