On Aug. 13, 2013, Bridget Anne Kelly, a top aide to former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, fired off an email to a colleague at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Those eight words would thrust her from a fairly anonymous member of Christie’s inner circle into the middle of a national scandal that would become known as Bridgegate, a saga that ultimately grounded the soaring ambitions of Christie, a Republican governor many thought could be president.
Christie was never charged in the bizarre scheme to close down access lanes to the George Washington Bridge — the world’s busiest crossing — as political payback against a local mayor. And he has managed to remain a sought-after political talking head on major television networks and a close friend of President Donald Trump.
But for Kelly, the scandal unraveled a life shaped in the trenches of New Jersey politics, and today she was sentenced to 13 months in prison.
Just before the judge, Susan D. Wigenton, rendered her decision, Kelly spoke through tears as she sought leniency and asked for home confinement.
“Today marks another sad day for my children in a nightmare that has robbed our family of so much,” she said, adding that she apologized to the people of Fort Lee. A sentence of home confinement, she said, “would give us an opportunity to rebuild what we have lost.”
But Wigenton sentenced Kelly to prison, saying, “The facts haven’t changed. The evidence hasn’t changed.”
The date for Kelly to report to prison has not be set.
Outside the courthouse, her face still red with emotion, Kelly struck a more defiant tone, lashing out at Christie.
“Just because someone has the title of governor doesn’t give them the right to mislead others. It’s dishonorable, and it only shows that person for the coward that they are,” she said.
“Mr. Christie,” she added, “you are a bully and the days of you calling me a liar and destroying my life are over.”
Christie today revisited the argument he has made about his role in the scandal.
“As I have said before, I had no knowledge of this scheme prior to or during these lane realignments, and had no role in authorizing them,” he said in a statement. “No credible evidence was ever presented to contradict that fact. Anything said to the contrary is simply untrue.”
In an interview before her sentencing, Kelly said the last time she spoke to Christie was in early January 2014, the evening before her infamous email was revealed. The governor sat in her office for an hour and a half, talking about nothing in particular, before she had to leave to pick up her children.
She said that she still felt betrayed by the governor.
“I don’t understand why he laid this on me,” she said. “I just, I don’t understand it. I was a loyal soldier in the sense that I got to work every day, commuted farther than anyone in that office. I don’t know. I’m so, I’m hurt, I’m angry and I’m just, I’m still just so curious as to why.”
Kelly spent nearly 20 years working for an assemblyman before joining Christie’s 2009 campaign in a field office in Bergen County and working the phone banks, often with her four children in tow.
After Christie’s victory, Kelly quickly ascended the ranks of his administration to deputy chief of staff.
“This wasn’t some part-time job that I got because I was a campaign worker,” she said. “I worked in state government for almost 20 years. So those 20 years were basically taken from me by the governor. Relationships I built over the course of time, who my children grew to know, because this is what I did for a living, all those disappeared.”
She was viewed as a dedicated political soldier, but never a rule-breaker, and her involvement in the Bridgegate scandal shocked many in Trenton. For months, even as Christie portrayed her as a rogue operative, calling her stupid and a liar, Kelly remained loyal to the governor.
But after she was indicted, her message shifted in court, as her lawyers portrayed her as the scapegoat — a “human piñata” — for the Christie administration. She said that the lane closings were pitched to her as a policy matter, and that she spoke directly with Christie about it. Her testimony portrayed Christie as temperamental, once throwing a water bottle at her in anger.
While Christie may not have known what his associates were planning, Kelly said he clearly knew there was something going on.
“Let’s be clear,” Kelly said. “He was a micromanager. If I suggested mac and cheese, he wanted the buffalo mac and cheese. Details were important to him.
“He knew what was going on,” Kelly added. “And any claim that he didn’t is absurd.”
Though Christie was never called to testify, his presence loomed over Kelly’s trial as witnesses laid bare the governor’s bellicose political style and his frequent desire to settle scores.
The decision to block three lanes for five days in September 2013 set off colossal traffic jams that trapped commuters, emergency vehicles and school buses and was meant, according to federal prosecutors, to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for declining to endorse Christie for re-election.
A federal investigation targeted several top associates of Christie, who insisted repeatedly that he knew nothing about the plot until months after it ended, even though testimony at Kelly’s trial revealed that he was told about the lane closings as they were happening and was involved in trying to cover up the scheme.
Besides Kelly, Bill Baroni, who was a top official at the Port Authority, had also been found guilty of civil rights violations, conspiracy and wire fraud. The two had been sentenced to prison in 2017, but won a partial appeal in 2018 when a federal court of appeals tossed the civil rights convictions.
Baroni, who was initially sentenced to two years in prison for his role in the scandal, saw his term reduced to 18 months. Kelly had originally been sentenced to 18 months in prison, but appealed that term, leading to today’s hearing.
David Wildstein, who was installed as the governor’s enforcer to be a top executive at the Port Authority, pleaded guilty to orchestrating the scheme and became the prosecution’s chief witness.
The investigation also ensnared David Samson, a former New Jersey attorney general whom Christie appointed as chairman of the authority, who pleaded guilty in a separate case to using his influence to get United Airlines to establish a new flight to an airport near a home he had in South Carolina.
Kelly is also appealing her conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the court has offered no indication whether it will hear the case.
As he sought to make a case for leniency for Kelly, Michael Critchley, her lawyer, described “the boys of Bridgegate — Samson, Wildstein, Bill Stepien, a former top aide to Christie, and Christie himself — and noted that they were all faring better than Kelly.
“She is living day to day on gift cards,” Critchley said. “People are donating her food. And my friends, the Boys of Bridgegate, they’re doing fairly well for themselves.”