NJ Mayor Blames Fear of Christie|for Biting Tongue on Bridgegate

      NEWARK, N.J. (CN) — Despite seeing himself as the target of the George Washington Bridge lane closures of 2013, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich testified that he hid this view from the public because he feared denouncing Gov. Chris Christie.
     “I was petrified of further retribution,” the Democrat said Wednesday morning under cross-examination.
     “It was not a proud moment for me… but I did everything I could to diffuse the situation,” Sokolich added.
     Just over two days into the Bridgegate trial, the jury has heard several references to the unanswered pleas for help Sokolich had sent while his city endured five days of traffic bedlam in September 2013.
     Sokolich testified Tuesday under direct examination that he had suspected someone being “mad at him” was at the heart of the radio silence.
     Prosecutors agree, saying certain someones were specifically mad that Sokolich had refused to endorse Christie for re-election, so they shut down two of Fort Lee’s three exclusive lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge.
     The government has already procured a guilty plea in connection to the scandal from David Wildstein, a Christie supporter whom the Republican governor had installed at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
     Former Port Authority deputy executive William Baroni Jr. has pleaded not guilty to related charges, however, as has Christie’s former chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly.
     On cross-examination of Sokolich this morning, Kelly’s defense attorney Michael Critchley grilled the mayor about his Nov. 14, 2013, letter to the editor of the New Jersey Star Ledger.
     This letter refuted the idea that Bridgegate was the Christie administration’s way of punishing Sokolich, even though Sokolich had been privately writing and texting that he thought this was a punitive measure against Fort Lee.
     “Are you proud of lying to the public,” Critchley asked.
     Explaining his stance, the mayor said he held back from calling out the Christie administration directly because he was worried about fresh retribution.
     Fort Lee at the time was pursuing a $1 billion of redevelopment of two 8-acre parcels, and Sokolich said he feared that speaking out would hold up the permits.
     Critchley asked Sokolich whether “by lying you thought you could curry favor with Trenton.”
     The state capital is where Gov. Christie has his office.
     Noting the redevelopment actually is going through right now, the attorney answered his own question.
     “Maybe lying worked,” Critchley said.
     Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye is credited with ending the lane shutdown on Sept. 13, telling Baroni in an emailed executive order that the lane closures were “hasty and ill-advised,”
     Critchley skewered the official on the stand this afternoon, however, about the phony press release from his office that attributed the lane closures to a traffic study.
     Foye refused to admit he had lied, though he said under oath that the press release was not the truth.
     “I saw this as Bill Baroni’s mess, David Wildstein’s mess,” said Foye, who was appointed to his office by of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
     “Proud of yourself?” Critchley asked Foye in a heated exchange. “The buck stops with you. … When the buck came to you, you passed off a false press release.”
     Both Critchley and Baroni’s attorney, Michael Baldassare, took the position in opening statements Monday that the traffic study was legitimate. Prosecutors have called it a cover-up.
     Critchley pressed Foye on how it serves the public interest to put out what Foye believes is a false press release.
     “Immaterial,” Foye said.
     “Immaterial,” Critchley said. “Lies are immaterial?”
     In the wake of the scandal, Foye testified before the New Jersey Legislature that he thought the lane closures were illegal.
     He told the court Wednesday that his order narrowly pulled Fort Lee out of the state’s fires.
     Once the lanes were reopened, Baroni tried repeatedly to get them shut down again, Foye said.
     Twice in person, the witness recalled, Baroni called the lane closures “important to Trenton.”
     Foye said he refused because it was a public-safety concern.
     After Baroni testified before New Jersey Legislature in November 2013, Foye said the defendant boasted to him that he had “outfoxed” and “outwitted” lawmakers in his explanation of the traffic study.
     Baroni and Kelly are facing multiple counts of fraud and conspiracy for their alleged roles in orchestrating and covering up the shutdown of lanes leading into the eastbound toll plaza at the George Washington Bridge’s upper level.
     During cross-examination of Sokolich, Baroni’s attorney Baldassare tried to downplay the “radio silence” text messages his client received from Wildstein with regard to ignoring the frazzled Fort Lee mayor.
     About a week and a half after Fort Lee’s lanes to the George Washington Bridge reopened, Sokolich canceled a meeting he was supposed to have with Baroni.
     “My ego got the better of me,” Sokolich explained. “I was frustrated.”
     Baldassare, an attorney with them firm Baldassare & Mara, also asked Sokolich about messages he wrote to Baroni in 2010 about Fort Lee’s about traffic woes.
     Because Port Authority had reduced toll-booth workers on the weekends at the time, Sokolich said Fort Lee gridlock no longer seemed reserved for the Monday-through-Friday crowd.
     He told Baroni the city was being “crippled by traffic” and “hostage to traffic.”
     But the Bridgegate closures made Sokolich look back on those weekends with nostalgia.
     “I should have saved those words … I used some pretty harsh adjectives,” Sokolich admitted.
     The case began with references by both defense attorneys to a dysfunctional Port Authority. In opening statements earlier this week, the attorneys likened tension between New York and New Jersey on the Port Authority to the “West Side Story” rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks.

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