By Joseph Ax
NEWARK, N.J. (Reuters) - Two former associates of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were sentenced to federal prison on Wednesday for their part in the "Bridgegate" lane closure scandal that helped scuttle the Republican's presidential bid.
Bill Baroni, 45, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, will serve two years, while Bridget Kelly, 44, a former deputy chief of staff for Christie, received a sentence of 1-1/2 years.
The defendants were found guilty in November of plotting to close down access lanes at the George Washington Bridge linking New York City and northern New Jersey, the world's busiest span, for nearly a week in 2013 in an act of political retribution.
Prosecutors said the resulting traffic jams in the town of Fort Lee, New Jersey, were intended to punish its Democratic mayor for refusing to back Christie's re-election bid, as the governor's aides tried to burnish his bipartisan credentials before his 2016 presidential campaign.
Christie has denied any involvement and was not charged. But the scandal tarnished his national profile and contributed to record-low approval ratings in his home state.
In an NBC interview before the hearing, Christie deflected questions about the appropriate penalty. A spokesman for the governor, Brian Murray, said Christie would have no comment on the sentences.
U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton in Newark rejected defence pleas that she sentence Baroni and Kelly to probation rather than prison, citing "an outrageous display of abuse of power."
But she agreed with prosecutors that Kelly bore slightly less responsibility than Baroni, New Jersey's highest-ranking Port Authority official. The agency oversees operations for major bridges, ports and airports in the New York City area and is run by officials appointed by New Jersey and New York state's governors.
Both defendants told Wigenton they felt remorse.
"I respectfully ask that you allow me the opportunity to reconnect with my children and rebuild our lives," said a tearful Kelly, a single mother of four.
Baroni and Kelly will be allowed to remain free on bail while they appeal their convictions.
Following the sentencings, Kelly struck a defiant note outside the courthouse.
"This fight is far from over," she said. "I will not allow myself to be the scapegoat in this case."
The plot to use the bridge to inflict political payback was "out of the playbook of some dictator of a banana republic," Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes said in court.
During the trial, Kelly and Baroni testified that another Port Authority executive, David Wildstein, convinced them the lane realignment was part of a legitimate traffic study.
But Wildstein, who pleaded guilty and was the government's star witness, told jurors the defendants were fully aware the study was a cover story.
It was Kelly's infamous email to Wildstein saying, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," that set the plan in motion, prosecutors said. The three officials selected the first day of school to maximize gridlock and ignored increasingly desperate pleas for help from Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich.
No other officials have been charged over Bridgegate, though evidence at trial suggested Christie and numerous members of his inner circle knew about the closures earlier than they had publicly acknowledged.
"While a number of people outside of this courtroom were involved in what happened in Fort Lee that day, some charged, some not, that does not change the fact that I failed," Baroni said in court.
After his White House bid fizzled early in 2016, Christie became one of the staunchest supporters of his former rival, Donald Trump, who went on to win the presidency.
Christie headed Trump's transition team and was considered a candidate for a Cabinet post. But he was replaced as transition team chief soon after the election Nov. 8 and passed over for an administration job.
State law bars the governor from running for a third term this year.
The Bridgegate case indirectly led to one other conviction, after authorities investigating the plot uncovered an unrelated bribery scheme orchestrated by a Christie confidante, former Port Authority Chairman David Samson.
Samson pleaded guilty to pressuring United Airlines into operating an unprofitable flight so he could visit a vacation home more easily.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Jonathan Oatis)