BERGEN COUNTY, N.J. - Hanging on a wall at the Ramsey home where Bridget Anne Kelly has lived in virtual exile as she appeals her 2016 federal conviction in the Bridgegate scandal is a poster that says a lot about her life.
The poster contains an excerpt from “The Velveteen Rabbit,” the 1922 children's book about a toy bunny that was tossed in the trash, rescued by a fairy and transformed into a real rabbit.
“Once you are real,” the poster says, “you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
Kelly, the former deputy chief of staff to Gov. Chris Christie, yearns to be understood as more than the author of infamous “time for some traffic problems” email that ignited a plot to realign access lanes from Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge. The plot sparked a political crisis that still resonates in New Jersey.
Kelly appeals Bridgegate conviction: Ex-Christie aides win appeal on 1 conviction, still guilty on 2 other counts
For Kelly, the road to redemption has hardly been easy, however.
In a hearing in Newark on Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Susan D. Wigenton reduced Kelly’s sentence from 18 months to 13 months. Wigenton also allowed Kelly to remain free on bail while she awaits a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.
With her life still in limbo, Kelly agreed to a series of interviews with NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY NETWORK — her first extensive comments since she emerged as a key figure in the Bridgegate narrative.
Her goal: To tell her story and recast her image as something more than a heartless government official.
The Bridgegate saga began with Kelly's email and created massive gridlock across Fort Lee’s narrow streets during five days in September 2013.
The uproar over the traffic snarls emerged as a factor in derailing Christie’s 2016 presidential campaign. It also shined a spotlight on the underhanded games that are a staple of American politics.
For Kelly, 46, a single, divorced mother of four children, Bridgegate and its repercussions upended her life.
In the interviews, Kelly, who is not related to this columnist, pointedly said she now feels scapegoated by Christie and targeted by federal prosecutors who stopped short of focusing on more powerful Bridgegate culprits, including the former governor.
“This wasn’t about Bridget Kelly,” she said. “I was the lowest-hanging fruit."
“It’s ruined my life,” added Kelly, who has been unable to find a job since Christie fired her in January 2014 from her $140,000-a-year post after NorthJersey.com and The Record published her now-infamous email.
The note read: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
The scandal drew attention to the sordid underbelly of New Jersey politics and Christie's bullying style. In the middle was Kelly, a mid-level gubernatorial appointee who rarely spoke in pubic but was nonetheless cast into a bullseye of blame.
Christie, then a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination who had just begun his second term as governor, angrily lambasted Kelly in a Trenton press conference as “stupid” and “deceitful” while claiming he knew nothing of the plot. Kelly, meanwhile, retreated to her home and kept silent.
Now, Kelly insists that Christie’s explanation was essentially a cover for his involvement in Bridgegate. She also believes other high-ranking Christie officials knew of the plot and helped cover it up.
"If they can put their head on a pillow at night, they must not have souls,” Kelly said. “They certainly don’t have consciences.”
Before joining Christie's team in Trenton, Kelly earned a reputation among North Jersey politicos in both parties as a meticulous and resourceful legislative aide to former Assemblyman David Russo, the moderate Midland Park Republican. After 16 years with Russo, she landed a job with Christie. Now, she spends her days alone — worrying that she willhead to federal prison.
“I have days when it’s hard to get out of bed,” she said. “I have days when I do a lot of crying.”
The prospect of going to prison is “getting real,” Kelly conceded.
“I just compartmentalize it,” she said. “I have four kids. I can’t be angry.”
Since she was convicted in November 2016, Kelly has been allowed to remain free on bail while she appeals her case. But those appeals may prove unsuccessful.
After a federal appeals court in December threw out two charges against her and fellow Bridgegate defendant Bill Baroni, Kelly asked the United States Supreme Court to examine the case. The court is expected to decide on whether to review Kelly’s case before its term ends on June 30.
If the Supreme Court elects to scrutinize evidence in Kelly’s case, she could remain free on bail. But if the Court rejects her appeal, Kelly said she expects to report to a federal women’s prison — probably Alderson in West Virginia.
Baroni, 47, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority, opted to begin his 18-month sentence earlier this month at a low-security federal correctional facility in Loretto, Pennsylvania. Before leaving, he said he wanted to put the Bridgegate ordeal behind him regardless of how the Supreme Court rules.
Kelly said she and Baroni barely knew each other before they were indicted. The first time they met, she said, was at their first court appearance.
After their convictions, the two became very close. As they awaited their appeals, Kelly says they touched base each day. They boosted each other’s spirits, she said, and exchanged ideas about their cases and asked about each other’s families.
Now that Baroni has chosen to go to prison, he is prohibited from communicating with anyone convicted of a crime. For Kelly, that means the loss of a trusted friend.
“Bill’s leaving was tough,” said Kelly. “You grow close with someone when you go through a traumatic event. And the past five and a half years have been traumatic.”
Bridgegate defendant sentenced: William Baroni gets 18 months in prison over plot to create traffic
The architect of the Bridgegate plot, David Wildstein, 57, a former Port Authority official, was spared prison and given a probationary sentence after he agreed to plead guilty to several Bridgegate-related charges and testify against Kelly and Baroni. Wildstein now runs a web site that chronicles New Jersey politics.
Around friends, Kelly still brims with rapid-fire energy — augmented by a get-to-the-point style of discussion — that she brought to her work for Christie. She still follows politics. And yet, she also concedes she feels isolated and vulnerable.
Nonetheless, Kelly says she tries hard to retain her sense of humor, which she describes as “snarky.” And yet, she also says Bridgegate has left her emotionally exhausted and nearly bankrupt.
Without a job, Kelly said her mortgage, household bills and tuition for her four children have been taken on by an array of relatives and friends.
It’s still not enough.
Kelly says she spends portions of each day on the phone, fending off bill collectors. Looming in her future are what her lead defense attorney, Michael Critchley Sr., described as “multi-millions” in legal bills.
After losing her job, Kelly also lost health coverage for herself and her children – MaryKate, 22, a junior at the College of Charleston in South Carolina; Conor, 19, a freshman at Fairfield University in Connecticut; Liam, 15, a sophomore at Don Bosco Preparatory High School in Mahwah and AnneMarie, 12, a sixth-grader at the Academy of St. Paul in Ramsey.
Kelly said her former husband, Joseph Kelly, the golf professional and manager of the Mendham Golf and Tennis Club in Morris County, took on health insurance for the children. For her own health coverage, Kelly was given a policy by a friend who runs a lobbying firm and pays her $12 every two weeks to read reports and offer advice.
“I have true angels in my life,” Kelly said.
But relying on others to make ends meet has been draining. Recently, she picked up a book with a title she could relate to: "Getting Through What You Will Never Get Over." On another occasion, she opened her mailbox at home to find prank mail addressed to "Gill T. Kelly."
“You talk about pride?” she asked over breakfast in a Ridgewood coffee shop. “I swallow the lump in my throat and do it for the kids.”
With so many financial and legal problems, Kelly says she finds herself also battling a bitterness that haunts her.
"It’s not healthy to be angry," she said on a recent morning in the kitchen of her home just outside downtown Ramsey. “If I let that get to me, they win.”
Kelly now visits a therapist. She also jogs. But trying to sort through the memories of Bridgegate has been difficult.
Only a few colleagues reach out to her now, mostly when her name appears in the news.
“It was like I had the plague, that I still have the plague,” she said.
Kelly disclosed that she has communicated with Christie’s former campaign manager, Bill Stepien, who now works in the White House as a key advisor to President Trump.
Stepien, who was fired by Christie in 2014 from his post as New Jersey’s Republican chairman after he was implicated in Bridgegate, could not be reached for comment. As Bridgegate unraveled, word circulated that he and Kelly had been romantically involved.
Stepien was never charged by federal prosecutors in the Bridgegate plot. And while Kelly’s career dissolved, Stepien landed a job with Trump’s 2016 campaign. He was credited with helping Trump’s narrow victories in Democratic strongholds in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Kelly says she and Stepien remain friends.
“We talk — not frequently. He’s busy,” Kelly said, adding that she is not surprised that Stepien is now a top advisor to Trump. “He’s very smart. And the president is ably served by him."
Political echoes still churn
Kelly is bothered by how she felt her relationship with Stepien was mischaracterized in a state-financed report on Bridgegate.
The report, assembled by a New York law firm linked to Christie, absolved the governor of any connection to Bridgegate. It also implied that Kelly’s breakup with Stepien led to a lapse in judgement that caused her to write the “time-for-traffic-problems” email.
Afterward, several prominent female political figures, including state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, the Teaneck Democrat who led a legislative investigation of Bridgegate, jumped to Kelly's defense.
"Nobody else except the woman in this drama was treated in that manner," Weinberg said.
Kelly called the report “absurd.” Her voice rose as she thought of the impact and embarrassment.
"They’re basically saying that I had a broken heart and so I decided realign the lanes at the bridge,” she said.
The story behind the email is far more complex, Kelly said.
The day before sending the email, she said she approached Christie and told him that Wildstein wanted to conduct a traffic study of Fort Lee’s three access lanes — and three toll booths — to the George Washington Bridge.
Kelly says Wildstein wanted to reduce traffic congestion to the bridge on Route 95 by adding two of the three toll booths that had been previously assigned to only handle traffic from Fort Lee. By reducing traffic backups on Route 95, Kelly said Wildstein hoped to impress Christie.
But Wildstein, who confirmed elements of this story in his testimony at the Bridgegate trial, warned Kelly that reducing access lanes from Fort Lee might cause traffic backups in the borough. What was not discussed, Kelly said, was another element of the Bridgegate story — that the traffic backups were meant to punish Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, for his refusal to endorse Christie’s gubernatorial re-election.
The reported attempt to punish Sokolich emerged as an element of the Bridgegate narrative. But Kelly now says she was completely unaware of any alleged political payback scheme against Sokolich.
“I don’t even know Mark Sokolich. Never met him in my life,” Kelly said. ... If somebody wanted to punish Mark Sokolich, that was above my pay grade.”
Wildstein did not respond to a request for comment. In an interview, Sokolich said he did not feel that Kelly wanted to punish him by creating traffic gridlock on Fort Lee’s streets, beginning on the first day of school in September 2013.
What bothers him now, Sokolich said, is a sense — shared by many in state politics — that Kelly may go to prison while others involved in the plan have remained free and gone on to success. These include several close aides to Christie and possibly the governor himself, according to evidence presented at the Bridgegate trial.
“I don’t think she was the ring leader,” Sokolich said of Kelly. “It’s disappointing that it’s more than apparent that others involved in this conspiracy who are simply watching this from the sidelines.”
Asked to comment, Christie said in a statement released by his Morristown office that he was unaware of Wildstein’s plans.
“As I have said before, I had no knowledge of this scheme prior to or during these lane realignments, and had no role in authorizing them,” Christie said. “No credible evidence was ever presented to contradict that fact. Anything said to the contrary is simply untrue."
Guilty plea sought
In her interviews, Kelly disclosed for the first time that federal prosecutors asked her to plead guilty to reduced charges in the case and avoid a trial. But Kelly refused the offer, claiming that she had been duped by Wildstein and did not know the full extent of the plot — in particular, what it would do to Fort Lee’s traffic.
To accept a guilty plea, she said, would be dishonest.
“I’m not pleading guilty to something I didn’t do,” Kelly said.
A jury nonetheless found her guilty.
“I’m now convicted of something I didn’t do,” she said.
Looking back, Kelly feels that she was never able to escape the embarrassment — and legal implications — of her email, as well as a subsequent text to Wildstein in which she wrote, “Is it wrong that I’m smiling?” when she learned of the traffic congestion. The email and text painted her as an instigator in the Bridgegate affair, when in fact Kelly says she was merely passing on instructions from Christie to Wildstein.
Kelly says she was a functionary who tried to carry out orders from higher-ups and spent much of her time planning events for Christie.
“The fact that people thought I had power was a joke,” Kelly said.
She explains that she wrote the "traffic problems" email early one morning in August 2013, while rushing out the door of her house to drive to Trenton. She had, she said, received Christie’s approval for Wildstein’s Fort Lee traffic study. Without thinking, Kelly says she tried to add a small dash of humor — the “traffic problems” line.
Kelly now considers that line to be a massive mistake in judgment.
“If I had said ‘It’s time for a traffic study in Fort Lee,’ I wouldn’t know any of those jurors,” Kelly said. “You and I wouldn’t be talking.”
Likewise, Kelly said the “why am I smiling” text was another example of her sometimes irreverent, quick-trigger attempts at humor — but this time with an odd twist.
Kelly said that while Fort Lee traffic was snarled — and school buses were late — congestion had been reduced on Route 95 leading to the Bridge. The reduction in rush-hour backups on Route 95 was a reason, she suggested, to smile. After all, Wildstein’s plan to reduce congestion on Route 95 seemed to be working.
But it was, nonetheless, extremely poor wording on her part, Kelly said. Students in Fort Lee were suffering because they were stuck in traffic.
“I have four children,” Kelly said. “I would never take part in something that would affect children like that. It’s ludicrous. And anyone that knows me as a parent knows that is how I feel.”
Looking ahead, Kelly is considering how to reassemble her life if she wins her Supreme Court appeal or ends up serving time in prison. A friend has hired a New York public relations firm that specializes in helping clients deal with crises.
If Kelly has a fundamental wish, it is to return to a job in Trenton. To do that would require a complete victory from the Supreme Court. And it would likely require a resetting of her reputation akin to the transformation of “The Velveteen Rabbit.”
After the Bridgegate trial ended with Kelly’s conviction, Judge Wigenton barred her, along with Baroni and Wildstein, from ever working in government again.
But Kelly says she still hopes she can return, somehow.
“I felt every day that I was drinking from a fire hose,” Kelly said. “I’d go back in a heartbeat.”
And one more thing:
“I’d like to make sure that my Wikipedia page is not all about Bridgegate.”
Follow Mike Kelly on Twitter: @MikeKellyColumn
This article originally appeared on North Jersey Record: Bridget Anne Kelly says she was scapegoated by Chris Christie in Bridgegate