Feds Mine F-Bombs Dropped for Gov. Christie

     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.
     Jurors have heard at length about Mayor Sokolich’s desperate pleas for help during four days of lane closures. As laid out in their evidence exhibits, however, Wildstein advised Baroni to maintain “radio silence.”
     Baroni resisted pressure from the prosecution Tuesday to admit that he misled the committee in attributing the slighting of Fort Lee to a breakdown in communications.
     “I told the truth as best as I could,” Baroni said.
     Cortes argued that blaming the breakdown in communications does not explain why he actively kept Sokolich and Fort Lee police in the dark.
     “You didn’t tell them that the study required silence to Fort Lee, did you?” Cortes asked.
     “I thought I made it as clear as I possibly could,” the defendant answered.
     “I’m not sure what stronger word that I could use than failure,” Baroni also said regarding his testimony.
     Cortes appeared frustrated at points during the testimony, repeating questions over the objections of Baroni’s defense attorney Jennifer Mara. After one of many non-answers by Baroni to a yes-or-no question, Cortes snapped: “You understand that if I want an explanation I’ll ask for one, right?”
     During another line of questioning, Baroni once again said he had relied on Wildstein’s direction not to talk to Fort Lee officials during the four-day lane shutdown for fear of ruining the supposed traffic study.
     Cortes scoffed: “Noted traffic expert David Wildstein.” Baroni also cast himself as a rare altruist in Christie’s office by describing his interactions with Tina Lado, who did government outreach at the Port Authority.
     Lado came to office under the administration of Christie’s Democratic predecessor, Gov. Jon Corzine.
     Baroni said this put her on a list Wildstein kept of political appointees, mostly Democrats, whom Christie might want fired from the Port Authority.
     When the September 2013 lane closures had Fort Lee and its mayor begging the Port Authority for help, Baroni said he worried any outreach by Lado would put her on unemployment.
     Lado testified earlier in the trial that Baroni told to be careful about making outgoing phone calls, particularly to New Jersey, because her office had been accumulating hefty phone bills at the time.
     “He did not want me to call back Fort Lee,” Lado testified.
     Baroni denied that he was speaking in code but insisted he was looking out for Lado’s best interests. He said Wildstein had warned that if Lado reached out to Sokolich, there was nothing Baroni could do to save her job.
     “I saw David Wildstein fire people … and I didn’t want Tina Lado to be one of those people,” Baroni added.
     On the second day of the lane closures, Baroni said he received an email from Lado relaying that emergency crews stuck in traffic had to bail out of their vehicles and run with their gear to get where they needed.
     In addition to trusting Wildstein’s assurances, Baroni said he kept consulting the Port Authority alert system to see if the lane shutdown was causing any major accidents or police emergencies.
     Wildstein had also been keeping in contact with Port Authority police to make sure there were no problems, Baroni said.
     The problem with this logic of course was that no one kept in contact with Fort Lee police.
     Previous testimony revealed that Christie’s office kept a list of local mayors and freeholders who slighted the governor in some way. Anyone on this “hands-off list” found themselves frozen out of communications with Christie’s office.
     Baroni admitted today that he helped Christie’s office freeze out various local officials, including Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop.
     There had been “some sort of conflict” between Christie and Fulop, the witness explained.
     The court also learned that Baroni delivered messages from Christie to Lautenberg in the same vein as the governor’s message to firefighter Lavin.     
     In a 2012 appearance before the U.S. Senate over Port Authority toll increases, Baroni spent part of his testimony dodging questions by calling out Lautenberg’s use of free E-ZPass.
     The defendant was gave a slippery answer as to how Christie enjoyed the Capitol Hill fracas.
     “Christie was not unhappy,” Baroni allowed.
     Baroni continues his testimony tomorrow.

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