Bridgegate trial defendant Bill Baroni’s efforts to portray himself as an honest, compassionate and politically independent–if, at times, conflicted– public servant vanished in a mist of embarrassment Tuesday as a federal prosecutor shredded Baroni’s self-serving version of the decision to create massive traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge in September, 2013. And gone, too, is any doubt over whether Gov. Chris Christie was involved in whatever his lemmings were doing at the bistate agency.
In controlled but sharply-aimed cross examination, Assistant US Attorney Lee Cortes depicted Baroni as an “attack dog” who delivered Christie’s angry and often profane threats to potential adversaries–especially during the governor’s re-election campaign.
“This was a political time and a political campaign,” Baroni said in discussing how Christie’s Port Authority’s appointees were expected to act toward those from whom the governor expected support and endorsements, including Jersey City Steven Fulop and Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich.
“The governor was very, very involved personally.”
The federal prosecutors, however, have never been eager to delve into Christie’s role in what has become known as Bridgegate. US Attorney Paul Fishman was satisfied with indicting only Baroni, then a PA deputy executive director, and Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff. David Wildstein a boyhood pal of Christie, already has pleaded guilty for his role in what looks more and more like a silly but potentially dangerous high school prank than political intrigue. Wildstein, who got to the prosecutors first, has testified against Baroni and Kelly.
Wildstein’s version is this: He came up with the idea of jamming up traffic at the GWB to punish Sokolich for refusing to endorse Christie’s re-election bid. Kelly authorized it with her infamous email–“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee”–and Wildstein and Baroni executed it under the cover of a non-existent traffic study. Christie knew about it while it was going on and approved. Patrick Foye, the PA’s executive director, stopped it although he agreed–for a while–to help cover it up. The cover-up extended to Baroni’s testimony before a legislative investigating committee.
Baroni’s version is this: Wildstein, given a made-up job at the agency, was really the boss at the PA–“the voice of Chris Christie”– and duped Baroni, an old friend, into believing there was, in fact, a traffic study that required shutting down entrance lanes to the GWB from Fort Lee. The study, Baroni quoted Wildstein as saying, would give Christie the chance to brag about opening up traffic to the bridge from I-95/I-80. But unforeseen circumstances–an accident in the Bronx and Foye’s interference–ended the “study” before Christie could declare himself the champion of GWB commuters.
Baroni has insisted he believed the study was real. He has insisted he didn’t warn Sokolich because “it was Wildstein’s project and he said he would handle it.” He has insisted he was forbidden to talk to Sokolich because Wildstein did not trust him not “to wimp out” and stop the “study”: because of the problems it was creating. If he did “wimp out” and stop the study, Baroni quotes Wildstein as saying, a “study that was very important” to Christie would not work because the “data would be skewed.”
Apparently, however, while Baroni was too much of a softy to talk to Sokolich, he was chosen by Christie and his men (and women) to deliver the cover-up story to the legislative committee. Except that he didn’t believe it was a cover-up; he believed what he was saying “was the truth as I understood it.” He was “misled” from the very beginning by David Wildstein and, presumably, Chris Christie.
Cortes, however, attacked like the demon barber of Fleet Street–calmly cutting right to the jugular and letting Baroni bleed before the jury.
“But you’re not a wimp, are you?” he wanted to know and then proceeded to get Baroni to admit that he was very much involved with Christie’s campaigns for governor, including serving as the stand-in for then Gov. Jon Corzine in debate preps.
He referred to Baroni as an “attack dog” who was given the task by Christie of humiliating the late US Sen. Frank Lautenberg about his EZ-Pass use after the aging and ill lawmaker opposed toll hikes at the PA. Christie also told him to tell the head of the statewide firefighters’ union–a friend of Baroni–to “go ‘F’ himself.'”
Why in the world would Baroni trust Wildstein, Cortes repeatedlty wanted to know, mockingly calling Wildstein “the man who stole Frank Lautenberg’s coat”–a prank Wildstein admitted to. Why would he let Wildstein–“that expert on traffic”– run a traffic study? Cortes repeatedly referred to Wildstein as Wally Edge, Wildstein’s nom de plume as a political blogger.
The worst moments began when Cortes made Baroni review how he repeatedly ignored Sokolich’s calls, emails, and texts–many of which cited dangers to the health and safety of town residents. Baroni’s answers like–“It was Wildstein’s project, he was supposed to handle it”–sounded brassy and tinny, epecially for a man who was such a soft touch he couldn’t be trusted not to “wimp out.”
Then there was the cover-up–the cover-up Baroni insisted wasn’t a cover-up–the testimony before the Assembly Transportation Committee on Nov. 25, 2013. Baroni has tried to depict himself then as someone who took full responsibility for a “breakdown in communication” with Sokolich and the mayor’s cops and firefighters.
Cortes would not allow Baroni to get away with the “breakdowns in communications” canard to explain why he did not warn the Fort Lee mayor of the coming traffic jams or return his calls. Instead , he accused Baroni of repeatedly lying because he failed to admit the mayor tried to reach him and Baroni deliberately refused to talk to Sokolich.
“That was part of the plan, wasn’t it?” Cortes asked. Baroni ducked the question.
“I said ‘communication was lacking,’ what could be stronger than that?” Baroni asked Cortes.
“How about ‘I deliberately chose not to tell him?'” snapped Cortes.
“You didn’t say, ‘I chose not to tell him’. You didn’t say, ‘I deliberately did not tell Sokolich.'”
To Cortes’ characterizations of Baroni’s statements as “lies” and “false” and “misleading,” Baroni angrily said, “Absolutely not!”
But the damage was done and, once more, lawyers in small groups will meet over drinks and talk about why you should never–ever, EVER–put a defendant on the stand to proclaim his innocence.
Baroni came across as someone willing to do virtually anything for Christie–and, clearly, Christie came across as someone who paid attention to any criticism or slight and used weaklings–or true believers, or both–like Baroni to do his bidding.
Baroni also won no points with the jury when he suddenly developed a faulty memory after direct testimony in which he remembered everything with sparkling clarity. He couldn’t remember, for example, whether he told Christie he wanted to be attorney general.
It’s not that Bill Baroni emerged from Cortes’ relentless cross-examination looking like a bad man. An evil man. The men and women who pulled off the Bridgegate traffic caper in September, 2013, were not hardened criminals with evil intent in their hearts.
They were just dumb twits.
They wanted their boss–“the only person who mattered,” as both Wildstein and Baroni have called Christie– to like them and reward them, maybe even with a trip to the White House in 2017.
And so they didn’t care how many people they endangered, how many people they inconvenienced. They just did what Christie wanted them to do–and they did it in a way that kept blame away from him.
Because they didn’t really know how stupid they were.