Bill Baroni, literally fighting for his freedom and trying to save his future, set himself an all but impossible task in federal court: Trying to portray himself as just an honest bureaucrat innocently working in an atmosphere of corruption and cronyism and deception that, under Gov. Chris Christie, had turned the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey into a political brothel. The words he repeated again and again to assert his innocence–“David Wildstein said it and I believed him”–simply won’t provide him with the cover, or redemption, he seeks.
He knew Wildstein–and, for that matter, Christie–well enough to know he shouldn’t believe either was a straight-shooter. He knew Wildstein, a boyhood chum of the governor, told lies about himself.
No one who had risen as far as Baroni had risen could be so naïve.
Especially not someone who spent five years as an informant for the FBI. The FBI under then US Attorney Chris Christie. Too bad Judge Shirley Wigenton wouldn’t allow Baroni to say what he had done as an informer from 2005 to 2010.
Carefully and gently led through his testimony by defense lawyer Jennifer Mara, Baroni repeatedly sought to persuade the jury he was flat-out duped by Wildstein, a political operative, into believing the governor wanted a study done about what would happen if three lanes of traffic leading from Fort Lee to the toll booths at the George Washington Bridge were reduced to one.
The only major surprise in his testimony–Baroni was certainly expected to blame Wildstein who pleaded guilty and agreed to testify for the prosecution–was the motive for the study. The US Attorney’s office has said it was done to create traffic jams to punish Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, for failing to endorse Christie for re-election in the 2013 election. But Baroni said that–on Sept. 11, 2013–in the midst of the traffic jams, he heard Christie and Wildstein “discuss how (the study) was done so Gov. Christie could announce he could fix the traffic problems at the GWB.”
There was no discussion at that much photographed 9/11 meeting among Baroni, Wildstein and Christie of “political retribution,” “punishment,” or “political endorsements,” Baroni said–in direct contradiction to Wildstein’s testimony. Baroni said they were laughing about how New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo drove to the memorial in a motorcycle.
HIs testimony puts a different light on the accepted narrative–while still, as Wildstein already has done, putting Christie in the position of knowing, perhaps even ordering, the study that created such havoc. Christie has denied it and US Attorney Paul Fishman won’t charge him–or even call him an unindicted co-conspirator.
The new narrative would have us believe Wildstein was working directly for Christie to create a pretense for the governor–just weeks before the election–to make a dramatic announcement that he had found a way to open up the daily rush hour traffic jams at the GWB by assigning the Fort Lee lanes to approaches from I-95. He would play down the pain suffered by Fort Lee residents–most of them Democrats anyway–but be pleased to know Sokolich would pay for his perceived political perfidy.
Does the narrative work? Maybe. Makes about as much sense as causing a potentially lethal traffic jam for the sole purpose of punishing Sokolich.
But, frankly, there were serious holes in Baroni’s testimony. For example, while it’s probably true that Wildstein had a direct connection to Christie and did the governor’s bidding, Baroni painted himself as unbelievably supine and gullible in Wildstein’s presence, especially when it came to why he didn’t want the mayor to know of the gridlock to come.
“He said I would be wimping out,” Baroni said of Wildstein. “This was a project David Wildstein assured me he was handling and I believed David Wildstein.”
Over and over again, Baroni said it: “I believed David Wildstein.”
Baroni also repeatedly used the phrase “wimping out,” as if machismo was a requirement for remaining in Christie’s good graces.
Odd, that. Wimping out?
But Baroni is a lawyer with degrees from George Washington University and the University of Virginia Law School. He testified about how he bucked fellow Republicans in the Legislature on issues of gay marriage and higher minimum wages while he was a state assemblyman and senator. Looking intently at the jurors, he wanted them to know that, while in the Legislature, he had principles and values–and wouldn’t, well, wimp out.
He had the number two job–paying nearly $300,000 in a bistate agency with a $7 billion budget and a potential political payroll of thousands of jobs.
Mara, his lawyer, tried to undo some of the devastating damage done last week when prosecutors showed the jury a videotape of how Baroni spent hours telling falsehoods to a legislative committee. Mara took him to specific passages in his legislative testimony and let him cite engineers’ reports that seemed to back up his testimony.
Baroni kept insisting he believed he was telling the truth. He was like the mythical Japanese soldiers who supposedly emerged from caves 40 years after World War 2 ended believing it was still going on. “David Wildstein told me it was true and I believed him.”
He even went so far as to say–seriously–that David Samson, the former New Jersey attorney general and then chairman of the Port Authority’s board of commissioners, told him to storm into the office of Patrick Foye, the PA’s executive director, and “punch him in the face.”
“I didn’t punch him in the face,” he reassured the jurors.
Punch him in the face?
So, Baroni knows he works in this $7 billion sleaze pile–and yet he insists he had “no reason” not to believe Wildstein?
Instead of providing a credible reason as to why he did simply did not ignore Wildstein and warn Sokolich, Baroni offered only an abject apology. He, well, wimped out.
“I have asked myself that a thousand times,” said Baroni when Mara asked him why he didn’t return Skolich’s calls. “It’s the first thing I think of in the morning, the last thing I think of at night. I listened to him (Wildstein) and I have regretted it ever since.”
Good chance the jurors will be asking that same question.
Baroni, a former state senator, is on trial with Christie aide Bridge Anne Kelly. They are accused of working with Wildstein–who has pleaded guilty and testified for the prosecution–to create traffic jams for four days at the George Washington Bridge to punish Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, because he refused to endorse Christie for re-election in 2013.
But the sheer magnitude of what happened at the bridge for those four days, the clearly bizarre nature of trying to create a traffic jam, and the apparent importance placed on the entire event by top Christie aides–all of that would send a legion of red flags up to the most naïve of political hangers-on.
But Baroni is a state senator and a lawyer and he must have known what was going on.