Today was the day of lies at the Bridgegate trial.
Lies told—maybe—out of fear or to cover other lies. Lies told and lies condoned by public officials who apparently viewed their responsibility to tell the truth as optional, not required. Mark Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee, admitted he lied when he wrote a statement that Gov. Chris Christie hadn’t shaken him down for an endorsement. Patrick Foye, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, admitted he “didn’t mind” that two underlings put out a false statement claiming access to the George Washington Bridge was shut down because of a traffic study.
The lies were stunners—because, together with Christie’s brazenly confident denials of responsibility– they sustained the political fable that carried Christie, not only through his landslide election victory over Barbara Buono in 2013, but also into his campaign for the presidency of the United States.
The lies created pictures in the minds of people throughout New Jersey and the nation that simply were not true—and it’s frightening to see how easily that can be done.
Christie—or, at least Christie’s people—did, in fact, try to force Sokolich, a Democrat, into endorsing him by holding the residents of Fort Lee hostage in a dangerous game of political chicken. In two days of testimony, Sokolich had said how he came to realize the lane closures were designed to punish him politically. But, weeks later, after the election, Sokolich insisted—first in a letter to a newspaper editor—that politics had nothing to do with what happened. It’s “simply not true,” he wrote in response to an article in The Star-Ledger in November, 2013.
“I lied,” Sokolich admitted on cross-examination by Michael Critchley, lawyer for Bridget Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff. She’s on trial with Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority. Charged with closing down access lanes to the bridge to punish Sokolich.
“Are you proud of lying to the public?” taunted Critchley.
“I am not proud of it,” said Sokolich.
Moments later, when federal prosecutor Vikas Khanna took up the job of trying to find and reassemble the shattered pieces of Sokolich’s credibility, the Fort Lee mayor tried to explain he was “petrified” of what Christie and others might do to him and his town if he didn’t play along with the Big Lie that the lane closures were part of a traffic study.
“I wanted it to go away,” Sokolich said.
After he admitted he lied but before he answered Khanna’s questions, however, I got the chance to talk to Sokolich, alone in an elevator. I was surprised by the vehemence of his answer when I asked him if he wanted to explain why he lied.
“I was scared shitless,” he said. “I was afraid my town would be castrated.”
There is something about listening to a strapping, 6-3 hulk of a guy who looks like he could lift a ton of bricks—because that’s what Sokolich is—and hear him say how frightened he was.
The other lie echoing dully around the walls of the fifth floor federal courtroom in Newark Wednesday was just an earlier version of Sokolich’s fable about how politics had nothing to do with the lane closure.
This lie curdled the otherwise assured testimony from Patrick Foye, the Port Authority’s chief executive, as he described the meetings he had with defendant Bill Baroni, his deputy, and David Wildstein, Baroni’s aide, in the middle of the lane closure crisis in September, 2013. There was drama in the way Foye said he stuck to his decision to reopen the lanes and rebuffed Baroni’s effort to have them closed again—and how Foye insisted the bistate agency had to put out a public explanation for why tens of thousands of people trying to get across the GWB were stuck in traffic for four days.
The bearded Foye, with the lean look of an 19th Century Irish playwright, initially owned the jury with his clipped and righteous recitation of the procedures Baroni and Wildstein should have followed but didn’t and thereby endangered public safety.
“We don’t do things like this,” he said about his underlings’ failure to follow procedures that would have given motorists and truck drivers and first responders notice of impending lane closures.
But then Foye described the public statement he said Baroni and Wildstein were “good with” to publish and describe what had happened at the bridge in those four September days. The statement—put out as an official public communication from the Port Authority—blamed it all on the non-existent traffic study that Foye admitted he did not believe existed.
Then he added:
“By that time, I thought it was Baroni’s and Wildstein’s mess—and I didn’t mind going with it.”
No, but you see, it wasn’t Baroni’s and Wildstein’s mess. Or Foye’s.
It was New Jersey’s mess. A traffic mess. A political mess. A moral mess.
But The executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey ”didn’t mind” that a lie was dumped on the people of New Jersey—because, after all, it was “Baroni’s and Wildstein’s mess.”
There’s more of the trial to come, of course. Chances are good more lies are coming, too.