Bridgegate indictments unsealed: Government petulance on (stationary) parade

Bridgegate has largely passed as a partisan political phenomenon, but it may have more resonance as a reminder about the wisdom of limited government. Federal prosecutors in New Jersey unsealed indictments against two of the major players in the scandal over a closed bridge and political retribution, while a third mastermind pled guilty. The New York Times report of the allegations and the communications between the three shows a conspiracy of remarkable pettiness and vindictiveness:

But an indictment released by federal prosecutors in New Jersey on Friday fills out in more detail the specifics of how and why, presenting the lengths three accused conspirators, aides and an ally of Gov. Chris Christie, went to, and the delight they took, in concocting their scheme and the sham story to cover it up. Two of the three, Mr. Baroni and Ms. Kelly, were indicted, while the third, Mr. Wildstein, pleaded guilty.

The fine-grained intricacies laid out in the legal papers show the three plotting like petulant and juvenile pranksters, using government resources, time and personnel to punish a public official whose sole offense was failing to endorse their political patron. The three were in constant contact, brazenly using government emails, their tone sometimes almost giddy. They even gave the increasingly desperate mayor of Fort Lee their own version of the silent treatment.

Thanks to an incredibly dim-witted arrogance shared between the three, investigators managed to piece together the plotting from government e-mail accounts. (This is, of course, yet another reminder of why Hillary Clinton eschewed government e-mail accounts.) Between them, they openly bragged about their ability to inflict punishment on their political enemies through abusing the power of the governor’s office. They then planned the bridge closure to hit at the worst possible time, and made sure that Fort Lee had no advance warning to prepare for the traffic disaster. On top of that, the trio used the Port Authority as unwitting accomplices:

The three then made up a cover story: They would say that they were doing a traffic study so that unwitting Port Authority staff members would go along with the plan, making it appear to be legitimate. That would require some planning and the involvement of unwitting participants.

Mr. Wildstein had a traffic engineer prepare several configurations; Mr. Baroni and Ms. Kelly agreed that the one that funneled three access lanes into a single one would inflict the worst punishment on the mayor, by creating the most severe traffic backup on the streets of Fort Lee. They would steer that lane to a tollbooth that accepted cash as well as E-ZPass; there would be no access to the E-ZPass-only lane that offered a faster commute.

They were ready in August, but Mr. Baroni recommended waiting. After all, traffic tended to be lighter in summer; “the punitive impact would be lessened,” the indictment says. They bided their time. They agreed: They would do it the first day of school, Monday, Sept. 9, 2013, in order to “intensify Mayor Sokolich’s punishment.”

When Sokolich tried to get the governor’s office to respond to the crisis, the three imposed “radio silence.” They then gleefully discussed whether Sokolich was calling back. When Sokolich apparently got New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office involved with the Port Authority, the conspirators worked diligently to maintain gridlock in Fort Lee.

Chris Christie claimed vindication yesterday, as the lengthy probe never found any evidence that he knew of this plot or participated in it. However, Christie has also said that he bears responsibility for it as governor, as his staffers participated in the plot and its execution. The indictment alleges a clear abuse of power, which still remains to be proven, of course. But if it is, it will be among the pettiest and asinine abuses of power ever exposed. The three should go down in ignominy strictly for the middle-school, mean-girls motif they imposed instead of acting as public servants. And for hiring people like this in the first place, Christie deserves blame.

It’s also a reminder that government power has to be strictly controlled, overseen, and checked at every level. That which can be left to the private sector should be, in almost any context, where government then can exercise oversight. Fans of big-government solutions often say that “government is people doing things together,” but it often devolves into bureaucrats protecting fiefdoms and kneecapping their opponents. Bridgegate is a great example of what limited government prevents, and thorough checks and balances disincentivizes.