Christie's image takes knock as former ally pleads guilty

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Bridgegate, Chris Christie and 2016 Ambitions


(Reuters) - A former ally of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on Friday pleaded guilty to charges related to the George Washington Bridge closure scandal, delivering another blow to Christie's image at a time when he is trying to get his presidential campaign off the ground.

David Wildstein, a former senior Christie appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy at a U.S. district court in Newark. He was released on his own recognizance on a $100,000 bond. The judge in the case cited his cooperation with prosecutors for the release term. Sentencing was set for August.

Prosecutors also unsealed indictments against Bill Baroni, former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and Bridget Kelly, a former deputy chief of staff to Christie. They were charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

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Chris Christie Tweets 5/1/15
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Christie's image takes knock as former ally pleads guilty
Today's charges make clear that what I've said from day one is true.
I had no knowledge or involvement in the planning or execution of this act.
The moment I first learned of this unacceptable behavior I took action, firing staff believed to be accountable...(cont.)
…calling for an outside investigation and agreeing to fully cooperate with all appropriate investigations, which I have done.
Now 15 months later it is time to let the justice system do its job.
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They were the first charges stemming from the September 2013 incident, which created four days of traffic snarls on the Hudson River crossing into New York City.

"He deeply regrets what occurred," said Wildstein's attorney, Alan Zegas, outside the courthouse, adding that by cooperating it "should shed truth on what occurred."

"He can't undo what was done," Zegas said.

Zegas said, "evidence exists to establish" that Christie knew of the lane closures while they were occurring. The shutdown in Fort Lee, New Jersey, of access lanes to one of the nation's busiest bridges caused hours-long snarls that delayed school buses, ambulances and commuters.

Christie's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The guilty pleas and indictments were another blow to Christie, an early favorite in what is likely to be a crowded Republican presidential field for 2016, who was lagging other potential candidates.

"Problems in your home state create an undertow for presidential candidates and sometimes they pull them under," said Rob Gray, a Republican strategist in Boston.

"It won't help him on the money front, that's for sure," Gray said, commenting on Christie's fundraising prospects.

According to a related charging document read aloud in court, Wildstein and two other Christie associates, Kelly and Baroni, conspired to punish the mayor of Fort Lee for refusing to endorse Christie for governor. The three arranged to shut down the lanes on the George Washington Bridge and decided that doing so on the first day of school would maximize the congestion.

The three also conspired to make up a story that the lane closures were due to a traffic study, the document said, and the conspired to cover that up.

In December, a New Jersey legislative panel blamed Wildstein and another Christie aide for ordering the bridge lanes closed.

Christie has denied knowing about the incident, and the joint panel of Democrats and Republicans in December found no evidence he was involved. The political fallout has hurt his brand as he considers a run for the Republican presidential nomination.

Blunt-spoken Christie, who has yet to decide whether he will seek the White House, was seen a few months ago as one of the top Republican contenders for the party's nomination for 2016 but has since been eclipsed by others - Florida Governor Jeb Bush and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.

A recent of likely voters in the 2016 New Hampshire Republican primary showed Christie in the second tier of possible White House contenders, with the support of just 5.8 percent of 1,064 Republican and Republican-leaning independents polled by Reach Communications on April 8 and 9.

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Christie's image takes knock as former ally pleads guilty
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks to reporters during a news conference following his signing of the state's 2016 budget, Friday, June 26, 2015, in Trenton, N.J. Christie vetoed more than $1.6 billion from the 2016 budget approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature and signed a roughly $34 billion budget into law. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signs the state's 2016 budget, Friday, June 26, 2015, in Trenton, N.J. Christie vetoed more than $1.6 billion from the 2016 budget approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature and signed a roughly $34 billion budget into law. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks at the Northeast Republican Leadership Conference in Philadelphia, Friday, June 19, 2015. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks at a breakfast ahead of this afternoon's convening of the Georgia Republican Convention, Friday, May 15, 2015, in Athens, Ga. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks at the Latino Coalition Business Summit held at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, Wednesday, June 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a likely Republican 2016 presidential candidate, addresses a crowd during a town hall style event at an American Legion post, in Pembroke, N.H., Tuesday, May 12, 2015. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
In this May 12, 2015, photo, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a likely Republican 2016 presidential candidate, addresses a crowd during a town hall style event at an American Legion post, in Pembroke, N.H. Christie isn’t yet officially running for president. But it’s clear he and his team are staking his likely bid for the GOP nomination on success in New Hampshire and its first-in-the-nation primary. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks to reporters after a meet-and-greet at a restaurant in Flowood, Miss., Tuesday, May 5, 2015. Christie, in his first out-of-state trip since two former allies were indicted and a third pleaded guilty to corruption charges for their roles in the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal, is on a jaunt through Mississippi and Louisiana to raise money for fellow Republicans. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
N.J. Gov. Chris Christie gestures while speaking at the Northern Virginia Technology Council (NVTC) in Tyson's Corner, Va., Friday, May 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addresses a gathering during a town hall meeting Thursday, April 23, 2015, in Cedar Grove, N.J. Christie blasted the Democrat-controlled Legislature on Thursday over its decision to file a brief asking the Supreme Court to side with the public sector unions suing his administration over a decision to scale back promised payments into the state workers' pension system. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie gives the keynote address at the Macomb County Republican Party's annual Lincoln Dinner fundraiser in Shelby Township, Mich., Friday, March 27, 2015. (Paul Sancya)
Republican candidate for Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, far left, watches as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, second from left, campaigns for Hutchinson at Lindsey’s Barbecue in North Little Rock, Ark., Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, right, speaks on behalf of Republican candidate for Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, left, at Lindsey’s Barbecue in North Little Rock, Ark., Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. Christie is a potential 2016 presidential candidate and chairs the Republican Governors Association. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, center, speaks with campaign volunteers during a stop at Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner's Chicago campaign headquarters Monday, Aug. 25, 2014. While speaking with the volunteers, the Republican Governors Association chairman said he questions the motivation behind Illinois' new same-day voter registration recently signed into law by Rauner's opponent, Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn. Christie claims that decision and voter law are attempts to boost votes for Quinn. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, center, speaks with campaign volunteers during a stop at Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner's Chicago campaign headquarters Monday, Aug. 25, 2014. While speaking with the volunteers, the Republican Governors Association chairman said he questions the motivation behind Illinois' new same-day voter registration recently signed into law by Rauner's opponent, Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn. Christie claims that decision and voter law are attempts to boost votes for Quinn. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addresses a gathering during a town hall meeting, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014, in Ocean City, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, left, and Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, right, chat as they take a tour of a laboratory at the Southern Research Institute on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, in Birmingham, Ala. Christie praised Bentley’s fiscal stewardship Wednesday during the stop to raise money for Bentley’s re-election campaign and GOP executives in other states. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, center, heads out of BAE Systems in Nashua, N.H. after stumping for Republican candidate for governor of New Hampshire, Walt Havenstein, second from right, on Thursday, July 31, 2014. Christie has been traveling around the country boosting Republican candidates in his role as chair of the Republican Governors Association. (AP Photo/Cheryl Senter)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, second from right, shakes hands with Republican gubernatorial candidate for New Hampshire, Walt Havenstein, right, after a campaign stop at BAE Systems in Nashua, N.H. on Thursday, July 31, 2014. Christie has been traveling around the country boosting Republican candidates in his role as chair of the Republican Governors Association. (AP Photo/Cheryl Senter)
In this July, 12, 2014, photo, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talks with reporters at the National Governors Association convention in Nashville, Tenn. Christie came into office declaring "a new era of accountability and transparency." Yet after winning a second term in 2013, and as he explores a run for president, a wide variety of people say his administration routinely stonewalls even the most basic requests for public records. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
FILE - This June 25, 2014 file photo shows New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaking in Haddon Heights, N.J. Conservative Republicans claimed victory this week in the Supreme Court ruling on religious freedom and the White House’s acceptance that an immigration overhaul won’t happen this year. Today’s victories could haunt the GOP in two years’ time, as the party’s presidential nominee looks for much-needed support among women and Hispanics in the 2016 election. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)
FILE In this Tuesday, June 24, 2014 file photograph, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addresses a gathering in Trenton, N.J., after he signed into law a bill that would extend the cap on arbitration awards to New Jersey's police and firefighters. The New Jersey state Senate has confirmed the two men Christie wants to add to the board of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The Senate confirmed John Degnan and George Laufenberg for the jobs just hours after both were advanced by the Senate judiciary committee following hearings. (AP Photo/Mel Evans,file)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie listens to a question as he campaigns with New Hampshire Republican gubernatorial candidate Walt Havenstein, Friday, June 20, 2014 in Bedford,N.H. Havenstein faces Andrew Hemingway in the Sept. 9 primary to take on incumbent Democrat Gov. Maggie Hassan in the November general election. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie takes questions during a visit to Hoogasian Flowers Friday, June 13, 2014, in San Francisco. Christie is in San Francisco as part of a national tour, headlining a high-dollar fundraiser in the liberal stronghold and supporting the California GOP's long-shot nominee for governor. Christie visited the local flower business with California gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari before going to a luncheon fundraiser. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, right, chats with former New York Jets football player Curtis Martin at a reception before the 73rd Annual Father of the Year Awards benefit luncheon, Wednesday, June 4, 2014, in New York. They are both honorees at the event. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
File-This Jan. 23, 2014, file photo shows New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addressing a gathering at the Dudley Family School in Camden, N.J. Lawyers for a state legislative panel investigating a political payback scandal say a former aide to Gov. Christie has shown no valid legal reasons for refusing to comply with a subpoena. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie leaves after a visit City Hall Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, in Fort Lee, N.J. Christie traveled to Fort Lee to apologize in person to Mayor Mark Sokolich. Moving quickly to contain a widening political scandal, Gov. Chris Christie fired one of his top aides Thursday and apologized repeatedly for the "abject stupidity" of his staff, insisting he had no idea anyone around him had engineered traffic jams to get even with a Democratic mayor. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, left, laughs with Newark Mayor and senate candidate Cory Booker in Newark, N.J., Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Newark charter schools. A new poll shows the U.S. Senate race between Newark Mayor Cory Booker and former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan is tightening as Lonegan accuses Booker of being more interested in Hollywood than New Jersey. Christie endorsed Lonegan but is close with Booker. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has his picture taken by student Anika DeBerry, as students and officials gathered at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013, during ground breaking ceremonies on an addition to its College of Engineering building. The new building will be a three-story, 90,500-square-foot structure. Its projected cost is $71 million, and construction is expected to be completed during the 2016-17 school year. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
In this Sept. 12, 2013 photo provided by the Office of the Governor of New Jersey, Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly, right, stands with Gov. Chris Christie, left, during a tour of the Seaside Heights, N.J. boardwalk after it was hit by a massive fire. Christie fired Kelly Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, and apologized over and over for his staff's "stupid" behavior, insisting during a nearly two-hour news conference that he had no idea anyone around him had engineered traffic jams as part of a political vendetta against a Democratic mayor. (AP Photo/Office of Gov. Chris Christie, Tim Larsen)
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