NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — A defendant in the George Washington Bridge lane-closing trial contradicted the government’s star witness Monday, testifying Republican Gov. Chris Christie wasn’t told about the alleged political motive behind a scheme to use traffic jams to punish a mayor who didn’t endorse Christie during his successful re-election campaign in 2013.
Bill Baroni told jurors Christie was told of the traffic jams in Fort Lee but not about the alleged scheme. In testimony earlier in the trial, former Port Authority official David Wildstein, who has pleaded guilty, said Baroni told Christie during a Sept. 11 memorial event in New York about the traffic jams and that Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich’s calls weren’t being returned.
According to Wildstein, Baroni told Christie about the traffic jams and the ignored calls from Sokolich, and Christie laughed and made a sarcastic remark about politics being involved. But Baroni testified Monday it was Wildstein who actually told Christie.
Baroni also testified the scheme was created and executed by Wildstein and that Baroni believed it was a traffic study meant to gauge how a lane realignment would affect traffic into the bridge’s upper toll lanes.
As CBS2’s Meg Baker reported, Baroni said Wildstein played him.
He said Wildstein told him about the lane realignment plan on Sept. 8, the day before it was put into effect. He said Wildstein told him if he answered Sokolich’s pleas for help it would mean he was “wimping out” and would ruin the traffic study.
Baroni testified that not returning Sokolich’s calls was his biggest regret.
“I listened to David Wildstein,” Baroni said. “He said to me, ‘Let me handle it.’ I listened to him. I have regretted it ever since.”
Baroni also testified he confronted Wildstein later in the week, after Sokolich wrote an angry letter claiming he was being targeted.
“I asked him, ‘David is this true? Is there anything to this?”’ Baroni said. “He said absolutely not.”
Baroni and Bridget Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, are in the fifth week of their fraud and conspiracy trial. They face up to 20 years in prison on the most serious charge.
Baroni, an attorney and former New Jersey state lawmaker, was appointed by Christie in 2010 to serve as deputy executive director of the Port Authority, the powerful bistate agency that operates New York-area bridges, tunnels, ports, airports and the World Trade Center.
Monday’s testimony marked Baroni’s first public comments on the case since he made a statement in May 2015 after his indictment.
Wildstein testified in the trial that Baroni and Kelly were active participants in the scheme to punish Sokolich for his decision not to endorse Christie’s re-election. Christie wound up winning by more than 20 points at a time when he was considered a potential top Republican presidential candidate.
Democratic State Senator Loretta Weinberg — who lives in Bergen County — still isn’t buying it.
“Anyone who knows the area knows those roads were not set up just for Fort Lee residents, so it wasn’t even a good cover up,” she said.
Baroni said he only met Kelly once in person, and that their only phone call over a years was about what to wear to an event.
Baroni also testified that Christie told him to hire Wildstein under the made up title of Director of Interstate Capital Projects.
Patrick Foye, the Port Authority’s executive director and an appointee of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, testified for the prosecution that Baroni twice urged him to close the lanes again after Foye had ordered them reopened on Sept. 13. Baroni testified Monday that was because Wildstein and then-Port Authority Chairman David Samson, a close adviser to Christie, told him the traffic study was important to Trenton, meaning the governor’s office.
Christie, who hasn’t been charged, has denied knowing about the scheme beforehand or during, and said in response to Wildstein’s testimony about the Sept. 11 event that he wouldn’t have found it extraordinary to hear about traffic jams at the bridge, considering it is the busiest crossing in the country.
Kelly is also expected to take the witness stand before the trial is over, CBS2’s Janelle Burrell reported.
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