David Wildstein pleads guilty in Federal Court in Newark, NJ today, in the NJ Bridgegate Scandal.
David Wildstein pleads guilty in federal court in Newark, New Jersey in the New Jersey Bridgegate scandal. (Carmen Natale)

David Wildstein, once a powerful staffer at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who admitted to masterminding what came to be known as the “Bridgegate” scheme, has avoided prison time.

Before U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton of the District of New Jersey in Newark Wednesday, Wildstein, 55, was sentenced to three years’ probation, 500 hours of community service and a fine, after testifying as a government witness last year in the trial of two Bridgegate coconspirators, who ultimately were convicted.

In March, William Baroni Jr.—former Port Authority deputy executive director, an ex-New Jersey Republican senator and nonpracticing attorney—was sentenced to 24 months in prison for his role in the scheme, while co-defendant Bridget Anne Kelly, a former deputy chief of staff for Gov. Chris Christie, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for their roles in the scheme that closed local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in September 2013.

Both Baroni and Kelly are appealing their convictions and sentences.

Wildstein, appointed to the Port Authority by Christie, was director of interstate capital projects at the bistate agency.

Wildstein, Baroni and Kelly were accused of orchestrating lane closures at the George Washington Bridge as retribution for the decision by Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor to not endorse Christie’s gubernatorial re-election bid. Christie, a Republican, denied knowledge of the scheme and has not been charged.

Although a law firm hired by the governor cleared him of any wrongdoing in connection with the lane closures, the scandal became the butt of jokes on late-night television talk shows and is widely believed to have contributed to his failed presidential campaign in 2016.

Wildstein initially claimed that the lane closures were part of a traffic study—an assertion that was quickly disproved, leading to an investigation by the federal government and by a joint committee of the New Jersey Legislature.

Wildstein pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy in 2015, and agreed to cooperate with the federal government in their prosecution of Baroni and Kelly. In addition to his probation and community service requirements, Wigenton also imposed $24,314 in fines and restitution.

“Although David Wildstein was the architect of the criminal scheme and a force behind its cover-up, he accepted responsibility for his actions and admitted his guilt,” said Acting U.S. Attorney William Fitzpatrick in a statement.

“His timely, complete and truthful cooperation was extraordinary and essential to the prosecution of Mr. Baroni and Ms. Kelly,” Fitzpatrick said.

“There should be no doubt that I deeply regret my actions at the George Washington Bridge,” Wildstein told Wigenton, according to a report from The Star-Ledger. “It was a callous decision. It was stupid. It was wrong. I violated the law and I am profoundly sorry.”

Wigenton said the sentencing “culminates a sad chapter in the history of New Jersey,” according to the report.

Wildstein’s attorney, Alan Zegas, who heads a firm in Chatham, could not be reached by phone for comment.

Christie’s office issued a statement after Wildstein’s sentencing.

“Mr. Wildstein devised this outrageous scheme all by himself, coerced others to participate in it and then turned himself in to avoid imprisonment for the crimes he has admitted to committing,” said Christie spokesman Brian Murray.

“That culture at the Port Authority was created by the perpetrator of this conduct—Mr. Wildstein. He is a liar who admitted throughout his testimony that he fabricated evidence of a relationship with the governor that never existed to enhance people’s perception of his power, replete with ‘rules’ and ‘sayings’ that existed only in his own mind,” Murray added.

Baroni’s attorney, Michael Baldassare of Baldassare & Mara in Newark, declined to comment on Wildstein’s sentence.

Baroni’s licenses to practice in New Jersey and New York have been suspended pending further disciplinary proceedings.

Kelly’s attorney, Michael Critchley Sr. of Roseland’s Critchley, Kinum & DeNoia, was unavailable for comment.

In the March sentencing hearing, Stephen Orlofsky of Blank Rome in Princeton, who represented Baroni, had asked for leniency, citing Baroni’s role as an FBI informant. Orlofsky added that Baroni continued to help the government with pending cases.

But assistant U.S. attorney Lee Cortes said his attorneys overstated the magnitude of Baroni’s assistance. Cortes said Baroni should have known better than to participate in the lane closure scheme, given his history of government service and his experience as an attorney and law school instructor who taught professional ethics.

“Bill Baroni was qualified to know the difference between right and wrong, between legal and illegal. But in spite of that, he chose to abuse his power and then he chose to lie about it,” Cortes said in March.

Critchley, at the sentencing, said Wigenton wrongly described his client as lacking remorse. He said Kelly maintains her innocence, saying, “that’s not arrogance. We have a difference of opinion.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney David Feder said Kelly did not deserve leniency because she destroyed emails related to the case and instructed another person to destroy emails. In addition, numerous witnesses at trial gave testimony that contradicted Kelly’s, Feder said.

Wigenton said the sentence’s impact on Kelly’s family was “important, but not the only factor.”

Addressing Kelly, Wigenton said, “I do believe you got caught up in a culture that lost its way when its focus should have been serving the citizens of New Jersey,” Wigenton said.

Christie retained lawyers from the New York office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher to conduct an internal investigation in early 2014—when, he has said, he learned that members of his staff might have been involved in the lane closures, and that the traffic study claim was a smoke screen.

After interviewing Christie and members of his staff and associates, the firm concluded that Christie was not aware of the scheme and was not culpable. Since then, the state has paid Gibson Dunn more than $9 million in fees, according to reports.

The Bridgegate matter led federal prosecutors to open other investigations into the Port Authority.

One investigation ultimately led to the downfall of Port Authority chairman David Samson, a former state attorney general and a Christie confidante. He was sentenced to a year of home confinement and a $100,000 fine after admitting that he persuaded United Airlines Inc. to restore a nonstop flight from Newark Liberty International Airport to Columbia, South Carolina, so he could save time on trips to his vacation home.

And in January, the Port Authority agreed to pay the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission a $400,000 penalty to settle allegations that it impermissibly raised at least $2.3 billion in bond revenue to pay for transportation projects in New Jersey that did not belong to the authority.

Most of the money raised was used to rebuild the Pulaski Skyway, which links Newark to Jersey City. The Port Authority is not allowed to pay for work on projects it does not own or operate, and the Pulaski Skyway is owned and maintained by the New Jersey Department of Transportation.

Contact the reporters at mbooth@alm.com and dgialanella@alm.com.