Attorneys for Bridgegate defendant Bill Baroni rested Wednesday–and the case for the defense seemed to fall with a crash at the feet of the jury. Instead of the defense ending on a high note of chipper character witnesses or rebutting damaging cross examination, Baroni wandered into a testimonial trap about a non-existent school in Jersey City.
And there, waiting for him, was assistant US Attorney Lee Cortes who, just as he had the day before, pounced on an apparent falsehood in Baroni’s testimony–and that, until closing arguments, will be the last thing the jurors will remember from the Baroni defense.
The substance wasn’t that big of a deal. In February, 2013, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PA)–where Baroni was deputy executive director– announced it was giving $1.5 million for a construction job training program run by the Hudson County Urban League. It came up two weeks ago in testimony given by David Wildstein, a political operative and friend of Gov. Chris Christie who worked with Baroni.
Most of the attention given to the testimony about the grant centered on whether it was an effort by Christie to somehow buy off the candidacy of former Jersey City Mayor Sandra Cunningham as a favor to Steve Fulop who ran that year and won. Why the grant would take Cunnigham out of the race was never explained.
But, somewhere in Wildstein’s testimony, was also talk about one of hundreds of email and text exchanges. It had to do with when Jersey City would be opening its schools. Wildstein implied he and Baroni might have been thinking about doing something to disrupt the first day in school in much the same way the traffic tie-up at the George Washington Bridge disrupted the first day of school in Fort Lee.
In the exchange, Baroni asks “Jersey City start of school.”
“Thursday,” replies Wildstein.
“Anything we can do?” Baroni asks.
“U fortunate,” replied Baroni, dropping the n from “unfortunate.”
But that was shown days ago. Cortes didn’t bring it up Wednesday and finished his cross-examination. Baroni lawyer Jennifer Mara rose for re-direct and re-posted the e-mail exchange and had Baroni explain he was really talking about whether the Port Authority could do anything for a ground-breaking ceremony for a building it had funded for the Urban League. She was trying to dispel the idea that the much earlier discussion with Wildstein–now all but forgotten–was riddled with nefarious intent.
The “something” in his email, Baroni said helpfully, was “doing a groundbreaking” for the building the construction program would be in.
Except–well, let Cortes say it when he rose for that rare thing, the productive re-cross examination:
“Mr. Baroni, there was no ground-breaking program scheduled for that week,” Cortes said. “There was no building.”
And then Cortes posted for the world inside that fifth-floor courtroom to see a February 12, 2013 press release from the Port Authority quoting–among others–Bill Baroni, saying how they were giving the money for “training programs,” not to build a new building. The press release can still be found at http://www.panynj.gov/press-room/press-item.cfm?headLine_id=1756.
Baroni tried to recover but his voice trailed off as Cortes ended the agony with, “Nothing further.”
On a lighter note, Michael Critchley brought a lot of laughter in his inadvertently scatological direct examination of the first witness for the defense of Bridge Anne Kelly, Baroni’s co-defendant and a former Christie aide. The two are charged with causing the traffic jam as a political ploy. Wildstein, who pleaded guilty in the plot, was a government witness.
Michael Drewniak, Christie’s former press secretary, was called by Critchley to show primarily that top aides to Christie knew much of what was happening–or had happened–at Fort Lee long before Christie said he learned about it in December, 2013.
Critchley posted one email Drewniak sent to Kevin O’Dowd, then Christie’s chief of staff. It read, “A new high level of shit is hitting the fan tonight on the Ft. Lee/GWB issue. Maybe you should know about it.”
The defense attorney seriously tried to probe what Drewniak meant by a “new high level”–had there been other problems in keeping the story contained even earlier than Oct. 18? But he put the question this way:
“Are there various levels of shit?” When virtually everyone in the courtroom broke into laughter–including Judge Shirley Wigenton–Critchley–who isn’t above waxing comical in court– insisted, “No, no, I didn’t mean that as a joke.”
The moment passed fairly quickly when Drewniak said he could not remember what prompted his email to O’Dowd. But, yes, there are various–and many–levels. Piles of the stuff from this case.
And there were some unfunny moments, too. Critchley led Drewniak into a painful discussion of how the Christie administration used people like Drewniak to enforce political loyalty, even among people who do not work directly for Christie.
Remember–Drewniak worked for the governor. Wildstein worked for the Port Authority. Also working at the PA, in its public information office, is and was a man named Ron Marsico. (Full disclosure: Marsico is a former Star-Ledger colleague and a friend whom I consider an excellent public information professional).
Wildstein, however, didn’t believe Marsico was adequately “loyal” to Christie, so he asked Drewniak to tell Marsico “that he needed to be loyal to the governor or he could be fired,” that he “needed to show proper loyalty.”
Marsico, understand, is paid to tell the truth, loyalty or no. He has a family. But Drewniak did as Wildstein suggested and called Marsico and threatened him. He testified he told Wildstein that Marsico “now had the proper level of fear.”
Christie’s thugs like to intimidate people. Make sure they have the “proper level of fear.”
Drewniak, by the way, also is a former Star-Ledger colleague. That’s where my comparison of him to Ron Marsico ends.