NEWARK, N.J. (CN) — In the federal trial over a New Jersey traffic jam orchestrated for political retribution, federal prosecutors struggled Tuesday to make the defendant look as bad as their star witness.
"The governor was the boss," said Bill Baroni, the indicted former deputy director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. "I was taking my boss's direction."
Baroni has been on trial in Newark for over a month along with Christie's former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly. The pair are battling federal charges over the September 2013 shutdown of two lanes connecting Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge.
David Wildstein, a fellow Christie appointee who already pleaded guilty to related charges, has said the bridge plot was retaliation against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie's re-election. Commuters, emergency vehicles and school buses faced hours of gridlock traffic during the four days of lane closures.
Prosecutors say the traffic study that Baroni and Kelly initially blamed for the lane closures was nothing more than a cover-up.
During cross-examination Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes worked to have jurors see Baroni in the same light that they saw Wildstein — a ruthless political operative whose dirty tricks included stealing a coat from the late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg.
Wildstein admitted that he committed the theft solely to make the elderly Democrat uncomfortable in borrowed outerwear, but Baroni's rap sheet proved less sadistic.
Baroni told the court about the time he delivered Christie's message for a firefighter to "go F himself," but the defendant refrained from spelling out the four-letter word on the stand — a move that sets him apart from a majority of witnesses in what has been an obscenity-laden trial these past five weeks.
Christie had it out for firefighter Bill Lavin, Baroni said, after Lavin criticized the governor on the radio in 2010. At the time, Lavin was a leader of the New Jersey firefighters' union.
Baroni said he was reluctant to relay Christie's F-bomb because he considered Lavin a friend.
But the governor allegedly had no patience for civility, asking Baroni: "Do you like your job?"
Baroni said the warning was clear and that he followed Christie's orders.
Though Baroni testified Monday that he was not engaged in the political machinations of Christie's office, the prosecution sought to undermine this by dissecting Baroni's testimony to New Jersey lawmakers in fall 2013 when the transportation committee held a hearing on the lane closures.
Cortes asked Baroni at least twice whether he lied.
"I did not," Baroni replied, pausing after every syllable.
"I was there, I was taking responsibility," Baroni added.
Baroni had been one of several Port Authority officials invited to testify, but neither Wildstein nor executive director Pat Foye heeded the call.
Though Foye earned hero status for reopening the lanes via executive order, he initially supported the traffic-study story as well.
Baroni admitted today that he withheld from the committee the importance of the traffic study to Trenton, a synonym for the Christie administration, owing to the location there of the governor's office.