Defendant in Bridge Trial Vouches for Christie

     NEWARK, N.J. (CN) — A man on trial for the politically engineered New Jersey traffic jam of 2013 testified Monday that it was no laughing matter when Gov. Chris Christie learned about the closure of lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge.
     Christie’s longtime claim that he had no knowledge of the traffic plot took a hit earlier in the trial when federal prosecutors introduced photographic evidence of the governor smiling on Day 3 of the lane closures with two cronies who would later be indicted.
     Bill Baroni Jr. confirmed for the court this morning that the pictures were taken on the day Christie learned of traffic problems in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
     That day in 2013, Fort Lee woke up to a third day of lane closures that caused hours of gridlock around one of the busiest bridges in the world, connecting the Garden State and New York City.
     David Wildstein, the third man in the photographs, has admitted as part of a guilty plea that the congestion was meant to retaliate against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who had rebuffed overtures to endorse the Republican Christie’s re-election.
     Though Wildstein said Christie seemed “pleased” when told about Fort Lee’s traffic problems, Baroni insisted Monday that the smile photographed on the governor’s face had nothing to do with Bridgegate.
     “Absolutely not,” the witness said, under direct examination by his attorney Jen Mara.
     Baroni proved unable, however, to remember what had him and Christie laughing in the photos, which were taken on Sept. 11, 2013, as Christie toured a memorial to the World Trade Center terrorist attacks.
     Jurors have met at the federal courthouse for over a month now to determine whether Baroni conspired with Wildstein on the lane closures and the cover-up, with help from co-defendant Bridget Anne Kelly, a former senior staffer in the Christie administration.
     Mara, a partner at Baldassare and Mara, asked her client: “Was there any mention of political retribution” and “was there any mention of punishment?”
     To each question, Baroni replied, “no.”
     Baroni said that he told Christie what he himself believed: that the traffic was due to a legitimate traffic study.
     Amid hours of prior testimony about Wildstein’s reputation for dirty political tricks, the jury heard that Baroni was Wildstein’s boss at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the public agency that runs the bridge.
     But Baroni painted a more nuanced picture for the court Monday, saying his office did not authorize him to fire Wildstein.
     “Governor Christie told me to hire him,” Baroni said with regard to Wildstein.
     “He was below me on the flow chart, but he reported to Trenton,” Baroni added.
     Baroni said it was his understanding that Christie brought Wildstein onboard to “tackle issues that were important to Trenton,” the New Jersey city home to the governor’s office.
     While overseeing day-to-day Port Authority business kept Baroni busy, he said Wildstein worked on the bigger, political picture.
     It was Wildstein who informed Baroni about what was going on in Trenton, in the governor’s office, not the other way around, Baroni said.
     This was especially true when Christie appointed David Samson to the Port Authority, the witness added.
     Samson “made it very, very clear to me that he was going to be the person communicating with the governor,” Baroni told the court.
     Baroni explained that the duties of his office included overseeing conduction projects, maintenance projects and the capital plan.
     Part of that was the traffic study now seen as a cover-up for the politically orchestrated lane closures. Baroni said he believed the traffic study was meant to help Christie fix the traffic problem on the upper level of the George Washington Bridge.
     “I trusted David Wildstein,” Baroni said repeatedly throughout the day.
     “I listened to David Wildstein.”
     Wildstein, the government’s key witness, has an unsavory political past. Defense attorneys called the truthfulness of his testimony into question during the trial’s opening statements.
     Attorney Mara questioned Baroni about the electronic evidence showing that Wildstein had advised Baroni about maintaining “radio silence” with Sokolich during the lane closures as the governor made consecutive pleas for help.
     Other than saying he trusted Wildstein, Baroni could not answer why he didn’t call Sokolich back.
     “I listened to him and I have regretted it ever since,” Baroni said of Wildstein.
     Baroni said he believed, thanks to Wildstein, that calling back Sokolich would hurt the traffic study.
     “Do not call him back,” Wildstein allegedly told Baroni of Sokolich, warning that hearing the mayor’s complaints could force them to reopen the closed lanes.
     Baroni said it was his understanding that Fort Lee could not know about the traffic study for it to be legitimate.
     Baroni admitted to ignoring numerous text messages, voicemails and a letter from Sokolich during the four days of September 2013 lane closures.
     It was not until Sokolich’s letter, which attributed the lane shutdown to “punitive measures” by Christie, that Baroni began to question the legitimacy of the shutdown, the defendant testified.
     On the witness stand this afternoon, Baroni recalled bringing the question to Wildstein.
     “David, tell me right now, is this true?” he allegedly asked after receiving the Sokolich letter.
     Baroni said Wildstein reassured him that the lane shutdown was legitimate, and further stymied Baroni’s attempts to replying to Sokolich, saying it required approval from Christie’s office.
     “David spoke for Chris Christie, so I listened to him,” Baroni said.
     Baroni also spoke about defusing tension at the Port Authority between officials appointed by New York and those appointed by New Jersey — most notably the dislike between Samson and Executive Director Pat Foye.
     Baroni said Samson, a fellow Christie appointee, had taken issue with Foye, an appointee of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, for “involving himself in New Jersey issues.”
     Wildstein was the consistent villain in the lane shutdown, Baroni testified, pushing Baroni to use misleading traffic statistics during his testimony before New Jersey lawmakers in November 2013 and helping to edit an underlying report that was the basis for that testimony.
     At one point Mara asked Baroni what he thought about Wildstein’s earlier testimony that Baroni was one of his best friends. “I think David Wildstein has a different definition of friend,” Baroni responded.
     During cross-examination, U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes rattled through the numerous emails, text messages, voicemails and letters from Sokolich that Baroni ignored.
     Cortes highlighted one such email, forwarded to Baroni during the week of the lane shutdown. The subject line read “urgent matter of public safety in Fort Lee,” and it contained Sokolich’s cellphone number.
     Baroni said he could not respond to Sokolich because he was on a panel for a transportation conference at the time. Cortes pointed out that the email mentioned public safety and that Baroni could have excused himself from the panel to call back Sokolich.
     “You didn’t call him back on purpose,” Cortes said.
     Cortes will continue his cross-examination of Baroni tomorrow.

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