Christie's image takes knock as former ally pleads guilty

Bridgegate, Chris Christie and 2016 Ambitions
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.

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.