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Defense Returns Fire at Bridgegate Trial

NEWARK, N.J. (CN) — Two Republicans accused of engineering a New Jersey traffic jam for political vengeance moved Friday to dismiss all charges, pointing out holes in the case federal prosecutors spent the last four weeks laying out for the jury.

William Baroni Jr. and Bridget Kelly face nine counts of conspiracy, fraud and other charges for allegedly co-conspiring on the shutdown of two local lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge in 2013.

The government says Baroni used his senior position at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to help initiate the lane shutdown, then covered it up with a fake traffic study.

Kelly, a former senior staffer to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, is accused of helping plan the shutdown as political retribution against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who earned the wrath of the governor's office by failing to endorse Christie's re-election that fall.

In a motion to dismiss Friday, which Baroni joined, defense attorney Michael Critchley Jr. said that the civil-rights charges against Kelly were too vague, and that there has been scant evidence for a conspiracy or for fraud.

Critchley noted in particular that the excess traffic in Fort Lee on the days of the lane closures — from Sept. 9, 2013, through Sept. 13, 2013 — was just a touch out of the ordinary for the bustling community at the doorstep of a busy bridge that connects New Jersey to New York City.

"Traffic is the state of affairs" for Fort Lee, he told the court.

"At best [Kelly's actions] created more traffic," the attorney argued, calling unclear just how much extra traffic would be criminal.

Critchley said the case case against Kelly and Baroni, which prosecutos wrapped up Thursday, failed to present any evidence that the four-day lane shutdown breached Port Authority polices and procedures.

U.S. Attorney David Feder responded that evidence from witnesses, including Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye, showed that the lane shutdown was part of a "fraudulent scheme."

Jurors heard plenty of testimony, the prosecutor argued, that Kelly and Baroni "deliberately manufactured a traffic jam" and "clearly were not authorized to use the Port Authority" for such purposes.

U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton will rule on the motion to dismiss over the weekend.

Proceedings let out early Friday after Baroni's attorney called several character witnesses to speak about his client's trustworthiness and honesty.

David Mixner, a well-known gay rights activist who had worked with Baroni on gay marriage and other issues, spoke about his and Baroni's shared liberation theology.

Mixner said Baroni was "one of the most decent" people he has ever met. "I would be stunned at any dishonesty," he said of Baroni, adding that the charges against Baroni did not sway his opinion "in the slightest."

Barring the court's dismissal of the charges Monday, Baroni's attorney Michael Baldassare said his client will assuredly be next to the witness stand.

Baroni has had a complicated relationship with fellow Republicans. He was once considered a rising star in the party, and was a close advisor to Christie. During debate preparations for Christie's first run for governor, Baroni stood in as a proxy for the Democratic incumbent, Gov. Jon Corzine.

Some, however, used the dreaded term RINO for Baroni, a Republican in Name Only.

As a state senator in 2010, prior to joining the Port Authority, Baroni was the lone New Jersey Republican to vote in favor of gay marriage. He also championed gay marriage both in the United States and abroad.

Baldassare told jurors at opening arguments that Christie thought of Baroni as "Republican light" for breaking the party line with his vote.

But Baroni had somewhat mercurial relationships with Democrats as well. During a 2012 U.S. Senate hearing on Port Authority toll hikes, Baroni attempted to divert his interrogation to Sen. Frank Lautenberg's own tenure at the bi-state agency.

Baroni sparred with lawmakers in his own state a year later when a New Jersey Assembly committee began investigating the Fort Lee lane shutdown.

Charles McKenna, who served as Christie's chief counsel until 2014, testified Thursday that, prior to the November 2013 hearing, he had advised Baroni to avoid a repeat of his congressional arguments.

Verbal sparring ensued, however, when Baroni repeatedly attempted to focus on whether the Fort Lee lanes were fair, instead of how and why the Port Authority decided to shut them down without warning. Chairman John Wisniewski complimented Baroni during the committee hearing for his oratorical agility. "Clearly your political skills are what got you your position at the Port Authority," he said.

Prosecutors played video of the 2013 hearing in court Thursday.

The United States already has a guilty plea in connection to the lane shutdown from David Wildstein, a fellow appointee of Christie to the Port Authority who said he saw Baroni as his boss.

Wildstein spent a week testifying against Kelly and Baroni, who deny the charges against them.

Baldassare may also solicit character testimony from an FBI agent — Baroni was a source for the bureau from 2006 to 2010 — but prosecutors have filed a motion to bar all or most of that testimony, saying it would bias the jury in his favor.

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