Bridgegate defendant says he was duped by lies about lane closures

Christie Traffic Jams
Bill Baroni waves as he arrives with his attorney, Jennifer Mara, at Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Courthouse for a hearing Monday in Newark.

NEWARK, N.J. - When Patrick Foye, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, halted a week of lane closures at the George Washington Bridge in September 2013, Bill Baroni received a message: Fix it.

David Samson, the Port Authority's chairman and one of Gov. Christie's closest confidants, ordered Baroni, the deputy executive director, to persuade Foye to close the lanes - and "to punch Pat Foye in the face," Baroni testified Monday.

At the same time, David Wildstein, another top Christie loyalist at the Port Authority, was impressing upon Baroni how vital it was that a purported traffic study continue.

Wildstein "was very clear the governor wanted this test completed, and I had to get this test completed," Baroni told jurors during three hours of direct testimony. "And I believed David Wildstein when he said that, because he spoke for Chris Christie."

Foye, an appointee of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's, did not change his mind. Baroni's version of what happened - told for the first time in a federal courtroom here - suggested that some of the highest-ranking officials at the Port Authority and the governor's office were complicit in the bridge scheme and the alleged cover-up.

According to the testimony Monday, it was Samson who told Baroni in November 2013 to write a report that the agency planned to release describing what happened during the lane closures from Sept. 9 to 13.

The Port Authority did not end up publishing a report, but the material became the basis for Baroni's Nov. 25 testimony before a New Jersey legislative committee that was reviewing the lane closures.

Among those who helped Baroni prepare that testimony, he said, were Phil Kwon, a Port Authority attorney and longtime Christie ally; Philippe Danielides, Samson's top aide; Wildstein; Charles McKenna, Christie's chief counsel; and Regina Egea, director of the governor's Authorities Unit.

Baroni disputed Wildstein's testimony that Baroni had bragged to Christie about the lane closures during a Sept. 11 memorial service while the lanes were closed in 2013.

Wildstein "discussed with the governor a traffic study that was going on at the bridge" - but nothing related to the motive alleged by the government: political retribution against a local mayor, Baroni testified.

Christie has repeatedly denied having contemporaneous knowledge of the lane closures and has said he did not recall the conversation as recounted by Wildstein.

Taking the stand in his own defense as family and friends observed the proceeding, Baroni portrayed himself as an honest public servant who tried to keep the peace at a "toxic" multibillion dollar agency where New York and New Jersey officials were in constant conflict.

Baroni's testimony came on the 18th day of the trial. The government rested its case last week.

Prosecutors allege that Baroni conspired with Wildstein and former Christie aide Bridget Anne Kelly to cause major traffic backups in Fort Lee, Bergen County, to punish Mayor Mark Sokolich for his refusal to endorse Christie's reelection campaign.

Baroni and Kelly are charged with misusing Port Authority resources, wire fraud, civil rights violations, and related conspiracy counts. Wildstein, who pleaded guilty in 2015 to conspiracy charges, testified that he ordered Port Authority personnel to close lanes at the bridge under Kelly's direction and with Baroni's approval. Then they covered up the scheme by claiming it was a traffic study, Wildstein told jurors.

In a separate Port Authority case, Samson pleaded guilty in July to a federal bribery charge. He faces sentencing in December.

Baroni suggested he was duped by a pathological liar, Wildstein.

"David said to me, 'Let me handle it,' " Baroni said, referring to the traffic study and queries from Sokolich about why the town wasn't notified about the lane diversions. "I listened to him. I have regretted it ever since."

A former Republican state senator who frequently broke with party orthodoxy, Baroni said he believed Christie appointed him to the Port Authority in 2010 to try to "break some logjams" on stalled projects.

But soon Christie sent Samson, whom Baroni described as the governor's best friend, to the agency as well, and the chairman made clear that he was to be Christie's point of contact.

Christie also instructed Baroni to hire Wildstein, who would assume the title of director of interstate capital projects, according to Baroni. Wildstein has testified that his job title was made up.

The governor has said that it was Baroni who wanted to hire Wildstein and that he simply approved the decision.

Wildstein was responsible for hiring and firing personnel, Baroni said, and attended to Christie's chief interests at the agency.

"Who did he report to?" Jennifer Mara, one of Baroni's lawyers, asked her client.

"He was below me on a flow chart, but he reported to Trenton and the governor," Baroni said.

When Baroni's assistant sent him an email Sept. 9 conveying Sokolich's message about an "urgent matter of public safety," Baroni forwarded it to Wildstein.

"Radio silence," Wildstein responded.

Baroni said he called Wildstein to ask what he meant. "I've got to call the mayor back," Baroni said he told Wildstein. "Absolutely not," Wildstein replied, saying the study would be "ruined" or "skewed" and was "too important."

"And I believed David Wildstein," Baroni told jurors.

Even as he obeyed Wildstein's command to ignore Sokolich, Baroni said he made attempts to verify whether the mayor's concerns were true.

For example, when he received a letter from Sokolich on Sept. 12 complaining about "complete gridlock" and wondering whether "punitive overtones" were associated with the lane closures, Baroni said he confronted Wildstein face-to-face.

"David, tell me right now, is this true? Is there anything to this?" Baroni said, pointing his finger at the jury as he recounted the interrogation. "He looked me in the eye and said, 'Absolutely not.' "

Prosecutors homed in on Baroni's own actions.

Among other messages, Sokolich had left Baroni a voice mail on Sept. 10. "He mentioned these things: total gridlock, children getting to school, who's mad at me," Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes said. "And you didn't call him back?" 856-779-3846 @AndrewSeidman