Mistrial Motion Filed as Bridgegate Jury Deliberates

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‘     NEWARK, N.J. (CN) — As a jury deliberates whether two former allies of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie conspired on a political-retribution plot, an attorney for the defense moved Thursday for a mistrial.
     With the filing by Michael Baldassare wholly redacted, the rationale for it remains unclear. Baldassare represents Bill Baroni Jr., one of two people on trial for the massive traffic jam that erupted when the George Washington Bridge lost two access lanes in New Jersey for four days in September 2013.
     Baroni had been Christie”s top appointee to the public agency that runs the bridge, which connects New Jersey to New York City from the small cliff-side community of Fort Lee.
     Just ahead of the lane closures, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich declined to endorse the Republican Christie”s gubernatorial re-election.
     David Wildstein, another Christie appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, has already admitted as part of a guilty plea that he conspired with other Christie allies to punish the Democratic Soklolich by stirring up traffic in Fort Lee.
     Along with Baroni, Wildstein claims to have conspired on the plot with Bridget Anne Kelly. Back in 2013, Kelly had been a deputy chief of staff in Christie”s office.
     Jurors began deliberating Baroni and Kelly”s fate Monday afternoon, but activity from the attorneys has continued in a quiet flurry at the Newark federal courthouse.
     The mood is growing perceptibly tenser as deliberations drag on, with the hall outside U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton”s court taking on the anxiety of the train-station scene in “The Untouchables.”
     As is starting to become a tradition, defense lawyers and prosecutors marched into the court Thursday morning — causing reporters to hurriedly line up for access — only to march back out quickly without giving explanation as to what had transpired behind closed doors.
     Again, neither defense attorneys nor prosecutors would discuss the activity of the closed-door meeting. Amid similar activity Wednesday, a marshal assigned to the courtroom threatened to eject several reporters who were milling around the closed courtroom door.
     Defense attorney Michael Critchley noted in a scrum with reporters Thursday that he doesn”t make the rules. Baldassare made a similar excuse. “As an attorney, I have to be really careful” in addressing the secret proceedings, he said.
     Prosecutors left the area quickly, not answering any questions, and have not returned since.
     Among those opposing the heavy secrecy is Bruce Rosen, an attorney who represented media outlets earlier this year in the failed attempt to access the government”s secret list of unindicted co-conspirators in the case.
     Rosen moved to unseal the sealed transcripts and unredact the redacted documents.
     “It is essential to public confidence in the integrity of the judicial system that the public be able to fully understand and discuss the issues at stake as to conduct of this trial,” Rosen”s filing states.
     Judge Wigenton ruled later Thursday to keep the documents and transcripts under wraps.
     As for the redacted Baldassare motion seeking a mistrial, none of the attorneys in the case addressed if or when they will get to argue their case.
     At least one thorny legal issue was resolved, however, as Judge Wigenton denied a motion for reconsideration by Kelly”s attorney concerning a jury instruction.
     The question of whether the jury must find that the lane closures were designed as punishment against Sokolich has been a sticking point between both sides in the case.
     Reiterating his point with the filing Wednesday, attorney Critchley said that the current instruction — telling the jury they need not consider whether the lane closures were punitive — “stripped away the essential element of ”misapplication,” which could now allow the jury to convict the defendant(s).”
     Critchley wanted a correction.
     “This is not a murder or kidnapping case, in which it matters not why the defendant committed the crime provided it is proven that he did so,” the 5-page letter says. “Rather, it is a misapplication case, in which to prove the crime required the government [must] prove the improper purpose of punishment.”
     Prosecutors summed up the argument as a distraction. “Perhaps the arguments made by defendants would be relevant if, for instance, the government proved that defendants misused some Port Authority resource unrelated to the alleged scheme — for example, the Lincoln Tunnel,” Assistant U.S. Attorney David Feder wrote in a response filing.
     With Wigenton rejecting this motion, Baldassare has pivoted to another related issue: seeking to have the jury ignore evidence related to Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop. “Because punishment is no longer an issue … the jury should be instructed to disregard the Fulop evidence,” Baldassare wrote.
     Fulop is a Democrat who was the focus of email instructions Kelly received in 2013 from fellow Christie aide Bill Stepien.
     As laid out in the trial evidence, Stepien told Kelly to “ice” Fulop, meaning freeze him out, to get back at him for some issue with Christie. While not a key part of evidence in the trial, the email chain shows a history of Christie staffers punishing mayors by cutting off communications.
     Other evidence shows that Wildstein advised Baroni to keep “radio silence” with Fort Lee”s Sokolich during the lane shutdown.
     Speaking with reporters outside the closed courtroom this afternoon, Baldassare said he is reviewing transcripts of testimony. Since the judge ruled against the instruction on intent to punish Sokolich, the attorney said jurors should not have to consider evidence related to punitive intent.
     Jurors have remained holed up in a conference room throughout the activity. Lunch on the first day was from nearby Hobby”s, a historic Newark deli that prides itself on pickling its own corned beef.
     Over the course of the lengthy trial, the jury heard from 35 witnesses, including an entire week dedicated only to Wildstein”s testimony. Wigenton nevertheless kept the trial running at a brisk, efficient pace, with proceedings running over the six-week projection by only one day.
     The jury, which is comprised of seven women and five men, has stayed attentive. In the only noticeable outburst, one juror had a minutes-long coughing fit during cross-examination of a witness. None of the jurors have needed to stay at home for sickness or other personal reasons, which has helped speed the trial along. One even suggested the possibility of staying until 11 p.m. each night to continue deliberating; Wigenton shot that down, joking, “let”s not get crazy.”
     Some of the jurors had links to the Fort Lee lane closures, according to press reports during jury selection. One, a special education teacher, has a wife who supposedly had been unhappy about the lane closures. Another juror had a family member who hates Gov. Christie. For the most part they all watched impassively during testimony.
     Aside from the nine counts against Kelly and Baroni — wire fraud, conspiracy and misuse of government resources — fallout from the trial could have further implications for the New Jersey political scene. Indeed, several individuals incriminated by witness testimony over the course of the trial now advise the presidential campaign of Republican nominee Donald Trump.
     The biggest of these names of course is Christie himself, who chairs Trump”s transition committee and has seen his ratings to plummet to historic lows in Bridgegate”s aftermath.
     Christie has never been charged in connection to the plot, but the Third Circuit kept a lid on the government”s list of unindicted co-conspirators in the lead-up to Kelly and Baroni”s trial.
     Wildstein faces as much as 15 years behind bars, though he may get leniency in exchange for his cooperation with prosecutors.
     Much of the prosecution”s case focused on emails, text messages, and phone call logs, while the defense relied heavily on implicating others — including Christie — as the true culprits.’