Political corruption trials—even those with high-profile defendants—rarely produce genuine surprises. But the opening day of the Bridgegate trial generated at least a half-dozen shockers, some of which may change both the political landscape and similar trials in New Jersey for a long time to come. Here’s my list of the big six biggest surprises unleashed in federal district court in Newark Monday:
Surprise 1 and 2: Despite long established defense practice, both defendants—Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Bridget Kelly, former deputy chief of staff to Gov. Chris Christie—will testify in their own defense.
“It’s 100 percent guaranteed, “ declared Michael Baldassare, Baroni’s lawyer. “You’ll hear her testify,” said Michael Critchley, Kelly’s defense counsel.
Of course, both lawyers—and their clients—could change their minds, right up to the moment they are called to the stand. So, for the moment, the declarations are more courtroom stage-craft than anything else. But, right now, the announced decision that Baroni and Kelly, charged with the politically motivated creation of traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge, will risk all to give their side of the convoluted Bridgegate story has to have had an impact on the jurors.
Surprise 3: The defense attacks on chief prosecution witness David Wildstein were not only withering but also extraordinarily vulgar, especially in a courtroom—and it’s a wonder Judge Susan Wigenton did not caution Baldassare to watch his mouth.
Sure, defense lawyers often call their clients’ chief accusers “liars” and “crooks.” But try on this comment from Baldassare referring to how he believed others thought of Wildstein:
“David Wildstein is a vicious guy, a bully….He’s an asshole, he’s a horrible person. He is a vindictive individual who would destroy your life. He has a twisted mind. He’s maniacal.
“David Wildstein is a miserable prick.”
Sure, such language can get into a courtroom in testimony about what someone said. Or in the recordings of wiretaps between goodfellas and other pillars of state society. Juries have heard such language before. But it’s unlikely few courts have ever been the stage for a prominent defense lawyer to announce flatly that a witness is known as a “miserable prick.” What does that even mean?
Surprise 4: It took less than an hour of court time before the heavy truth draping over this trial like a shroud was finally and formally identified: Chris Christie knew about the effort to create a monstrous traffic jam in Fort Lee by closing off its access lanes to the George Washington Bridge—and he knew about the assault on the Bergen County town and its residents while it was going on—not months later, as he contended.
According to the prosecution—yes, the prosecution—Christie and Baroni and Wildstein, a childhood chum of Christie, marked the somber day of 9/11 in 2013 by enjoying a good laugh about what was happening to the people in Fort Lee. All done, say the prosecutors, to punish a Democratic mayor for failing to support Christie’s re-eelection.
Baldassare directly—and Critchley, less so—also implicated Christie. Baroni’s lawyer told the court that, whatever Wildstein said or did, he did it at the direction of his boss and childhood friend, the governor.
“When David Wildstein spoke, Governor Christie’s voice came out and everyone knew it,” said Baldassare. He called Wildstein “a ventriloquist’s doll sitting on…Christie’s lap.”
But there’s something wrong here, something wrong about pretending that any sort of formal incrimination of Christie in Bridgegate would be a shock or surprise—The New York Times sent out a news alert about it right after Assistant US Attorney Vikas Khanna told of the bizarre 9/11 Day meeting.
But is there anyone out there besides fanatical Christie and Donald Trump supporters who really believed Christie didn’t know about what happened? Did anyone really believe Baroni and Kelly, no matter how much they may have wanted Christie to be re-elected in 2013, acted on their own—or even just with Wildstein—to inflict chaos on the nation’s most heavily-traveled interstate crossing?
No, the surprise was how US Attorney Paul Fishman arranged to reveal his little bombshell. Not by indicting Christie—certainly there’s a crime involved—or even supporting the release of Christie’s name as an unindicted co-conspirator (which Fishman doesn’t).
No, the incriminating statement was all but mentioned in passing by Khanna who—and here’s the real shocker—told the jurors they shouldn’t even think of what Christie’s involvement—or the involvement of “others”—had been or why they hadn’t been charged. All they had to do was decide what Baroni and Kelly had done.
Think about that. Fishman has known, or believed, for months that Christie was involved—but has fought release of that information to a public asked to vote for Christie for president. Kept that information a secret while Christie rose in the esteem and the ranks of Trump’s campaign. He may be the man who helps select the next cabinet. Or Supreme Court justices. Christie may be the next US Attorney General.
Sorry, that’s wrong—and, if Fishman doesn’t get why it’s wrong, that’s yet another shocker.
But here’s the last and biggest surprise of all:
Surprise 6: While he was a member of the Legislature, Bill Baroni, from 2006 to 2010, was an FBI informant, tasked with helping to dig out “corruption in the Legislature and the governor’s office.”
Wait—what? According to Baldassare, who read from FBI reports and even identified Baroni’s FBI handler in the courtroom, Baroni fed information to the FBI about cases—unnamed so far—that would go to trial and lead to convictions.
Now, remember who the federal prosecutor was in 2006 until 2009? Chris Christie. And Christie used his prosecutorial powers to eliminate potential rivals in both the Democratic and Republican parties. Christie also knew he was going to run against Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in 2009.
Think of the Solomon Dwek indictments in the so-called “bid-rig” cases that led to mass indictments of Democratic politicians—and the two years of hanging former Assembly Speaker Joseph Doria out to dry on charges that were never brought. Was Baroni working with Christie on those cases? Was Baroni’s reward a cushy job at the Port Authority?
Even those sitting in the courtroom, watching and listening—even those who believe they know what happened in Bridgegate—they don’t really know. Corruption in New Jersey isn’t simply matters of pay-to-play or quid-pro-quo.
Corruption here is the creation of alternate realities, designed and foisted on the public by masters of deception with agendas of power and access to the media. Critchley told the jury that Wildstein “sold words”—a reference to his time as political blogger “Wally Edge.”
Critchley came close to a profound truth—that those in public life and those whose responsibility should be to depict politics as it really is instead contribute to creating a fiction comfortable enough for the rest of us to live by. Yesterday’s reality about Bridgegate wasn’t today’s—and won’t be tomorrow’s.
And this trial, sadly, won’t reveal the truth as long as defendants are selectively chosen—and other perps are allowed to run for president.
I will return to the trial off and on for the next few weeks. Stay tuned.