David Wildstein, the former ally and political fixer of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, pleaded guilty Friday to two counts of conspiracy in the federal investigation of the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal.
Mr. Wildstein also indicated he has cooperated with federal prosecutors in the 16-month probe. In an appearance in Newark around 11 a.m. Friday, Mr. Wildstein said he conspired for months with Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni to retaliate against the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J. and then tried to conceal their actions. The Christie administration coveted an endorsement from Mark Sokolich in the governor’s 2013 re-election campaign, but he didn’t endorse the governor.
The indictment says their actions deprived people of Fort Lee “the ability to move freely through their borough.” The plea deal was signed more than three months ago, on Jan. 21.
U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman is expected to hold a press conference later on Friday to announce further findings. It wasn’t immediately clear if others will be implicated.
Mr. Wildstein appeared in court on Friday looking thinner and sporting a beard. More than 100 people were crammed into the courtroom, spilling into the jury box.
Mr. Wildstein, a former mayor of Livingston, N.J., had a history in New Jersey politics. Before joining the Port Authority, he was a well-read blogger who wrote under the pseudonym “Wally Edge,” the name of a former New Jersey governor. He was known to save thousands of pages of emails and often corresponded with top state political officials, even though many didn’t know who he was.
After taking the Port Authority position, the Montville, N.J., resident was widely viewed as one of the Christie administration’s top operatives inside the agency, which is jointly controlled by New York and New Jersey. He was hired with Mr. Christie’s approval and was friends with many in the governor’s political orbit, sometimes meeting with administration officials in the weeks after the lanes were closed.
Mr. Christie defended Mr. Wildstein for months, even saying three months after the lane closures that people would eventually owe him an apology. After the emails were released, the Christie administration attacked Mr. Wildstein.
Mr. Christie and Mr. Wildstein were photographed together at the Sept. 11 commemoration in 2013, during the lane closures, though the governor has said he had no knowledge of the closures before they happened.
The scandal implicating former allies of Mr. Christie has drawn national attention and could weigh on the Republican governor’s prospects in a possible run for president in 2016.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office has declined to comment on details since it is an open investigation. The office declined to provide any information Friday morning about who was being charged or the natures of the charges.
Mr. Fishman has been investigating whether Mr. Christie’s former allies broke criminal laws in an investigation that has broadened in scope since it began in January 2014. His office began investigating months after the more than four days of lane closures that crippled traffic in Fort Lee, N.J., in September 2013, amid Mr. Christie’s bid for re-election as governor.
When asked about the scandal Wednesday, Mr. Christie said it doesn’t impact him and has no bearing on his ability to run for president, if he chooses to do so.
“I don’t think that has anything much to do with me,” Mr. Christie said during an unrelated news conference in New Brunswick, N.J. “That matter will take its natural course and will be dictated by the folks who are investigating it and I don’t have anything to do with that.”
Mr. Christie and his attorney met with federal prosecutors about the lane closures last year. The governor said Wednesday that he hasn’t spoken to investigators since.
Prosecutors have investigated whether former allies to Mr. Christie were involved in the closures at the bridge for political reasons, an effort to conceal why the lanes were closed and other alleged abuses involving the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
The lane closures continued each morning for five days, even as borough officials begged Christie administration officials to reverse them, citing concerns about emergency vehicle travel and commutes that were stretching several hours. The closures were reversed on that Friday after New York officials at the Port Authority intervened.
In an official statement, the Port Authority initially said the closures were part of an unannounced “traffic study,” an explanation the Christie administration continued to use for months. Mr. Christie’s top Port Authority executive, Bill Baroni, repeated that explanation in testimony before a New Jersey legislative committee probing the closures, though he apologized for a lack of communication and acknowledged that the authority had collected no usable data.
Speaking in January 2014, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he had no involvement or knowledge of lane closures at the George Washington Bridge that have set off a political firestorm in the state. (Originally published on 1/09/14)
Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye testified before a New Jersey legislative committee in December 2013 that he didn’t believe the traffic study story was true, and other officials said the authority wouldn’t have closed lanes to study traffic movement in the first place.
In January 2014, the legislative committee released emails it had received from Mr. Wildstein, formerly the director of interstate capital projects at the Port Authority.
Mr. Wildstein’s text messages and emails showed that he and Bridget Anne Kelly, then Mr. Christie’s deputy chief of staff, planned the lane closures and privately joked about the chaos they caused for Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, whose town is on the New Jersey side of the bridge. Mr. Christie’s administration had sought but not received the mayor’s endorsement in the governor’s 2013 re-election bid.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Ms. Kelly wrote on Aug. 13, 2013.
“Got it,” Mr. Wildstein responded, proceeding to orchestrate the closures with the help of others at the authority, including the agency’s police department.
On Sept. 10, the second day of the closures, Ms. Kelly said in a text message she felt bad about the schoolchildren that were stuck on buses for hours after being stranded in traffic. “They are the children of Buono voters,” Mr. Wildstein wrote, referring to Barbara Buono, the governor’s Democratic opponent in 2013.
Mr. Wildstein resigned in December 2013 as scrutiny grew over the lane closures. Ms. Kelly was fired by Mr. Christie after the emails were released.
A grand jury heard testimony for about a year, and prosecutors quizzed a range of officials, including Mr. Christie. Prosecutors were interested in the lane closures, how officials explained them and whether any effort was made to conceal them, according to attorneys representing witnesses in the investigation.
Prosecutors are believed to be separately investigating David Samson, then the Port Authority chairman, to see if he was asking United Airlines officials for a special flight to his vacation home while negotiating with the airline over Port matters.
People close to Mr. Christie privately have said they wanted the probes to wrap up as they eye a 2016 presidential bid. But legal proceedings could stretch on for months.
Attorneys representing Ms. Kelly and Mr. Baroni have declined to comment.
Mr. Wildstein’s attorney has fought for the Port Authority to indemnify his client and has said that evidence exists that Mr. Christie knew about the lane closures taking place earlier than he has stated publicly.
Two other investigations—one by Mr. Christie’s office, and one by the Democratic-led Legislature—didn’t unearth evidence that Mr. Christie knew about the lane closures before they occurred. The legislative probe indicated there was strong evidence of a coverup, while the investigation commissioned by Mr. Christie’s office said there wasn’t.