Bridgegate Defendants Should Not Go to Jail

Bill Baroni leaving federal court in Newark after his sentencing on March 29. Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

What began as an important investigation into the abuse of power at the highest levels of N.J. State Government has now become a glaring example of unfairness and injustice.

There was no justice in the jail sentence doled out last week to Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni, while Bridgegate’s more central figures went unprosecuted. Who could honestly feel that justice was served by putting two underlings in jail while their former boss, David Samson, then Chairman of the Port Authority of NY and NJ, is sentenced to sit by his pool after pleading guilty to something far more serious – extortion of a national airline?

Kelly said the fight for vindication is far from over. Alyana Alfaro for Observer

What is the Message of Bridgegate?

During sentencing, the court was rightly concerned about the message being sent to the public regarding intolerance for public corruption. Nevertheless, in this case, the court needed to take its analysis to the next level and consider if Kelly and Baroni actually deserved to go to jail for their roles in the scandal.

“It was clear to me that the environment in Trenton created a culture that you’re either with us or you’re against us,” U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton stated during the sentencing hearing. “You got caught up in a culture and an environment that lost its way.”

The Judge’s statements were correct and exactly on point.  Other than the good favor of the Christie Administration, what personal benefit could Kelly and Baroni have received by causing traffic on the George Washington Bridge?  Unfortunately, neither the culture of Trenton nor the central figures responsible for creating that culture — Governor Chris Christie, Chairman Samson and others – were on trial.

While much of the trial and seemingly all of the news articles focused on Christie, he was not on trial and he did not get a jail sentence.  Meanwhile, Samson, who pled guilty to demanding that United Airlines create the “Chairman’s flight” to shuttle him back and forth from his home in South Carolina, will not serve time in jail. His sentence included home confinement, fines and community service. The “culture and environment” that Samson was partly responsible for creating at the Port Authority was not even considered during his sentencing.  Nor was there a trial, just a guilty plea.

Please, No More Bridgegate Investigations

Bridgegate has run its course.  Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto is right to discourage those who want to continue the investigation in the NJ State Legislature and spend even more taxpayer money.

Some politicians are so desperate to “send a message” that they have lost sight of the message they are sending.  The cost of an inquiry into four days of traffic at the George Washington Bridge and the facts uncovered no longer seem to matter in a political corruption case that has become a colossal waste of taxpayer resources.

Legal fees related to the scandal would escalate if Assemblyman John Wisniewski were allowed to continue a witch hunt while he runs for N.J. Governor. Wisniewski’s committee can take credit for revealing the “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email that sparked the initial investigation, but it is time to move on and use public funds for needed infrastructure improvements and programs that benefit NJ taxpayers instead of for “messages.”

Wisniewski has accused Speaker Prieto for “stonewalling” further investigation. However, Prieto deserves praise for standing up to this insanity. The estimated cost of over $20 million for legal fees and staff time to “send a message,” and to send the wrong message at that is already beyond any common-sense judgement.  Other than to reconsider the jail sentences to Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni, it is time to put Bridgegate behind us.

Donald Scarinci is a managing partner at Lyndhurst, NJ-based law firm Scarinci Hollenbeck.  He is also the editor of the Constitutional Law Reporter and Government and Law blogs.

Bridgegate Defendants Should Not Go to Jail