NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, the alleged target of a political retribution plot by two former allies of Republican Gov. Chris Christie, took the stand at their trial on Tuesday.
As CBS2’s Christine Sloan reported, Sokolich declined to endorse Christie for re-election in 2013. Prosecutors claimed Christie allies Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni sought to punish Sokolich by closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge and causing massive traffic jams in September 2013.
Kelly was Christie’s deputy chief of staff and Baroni was a top executive at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge.
Sokolich did not wish to speak outside court.
“I’d rather not comment,” he told Sloan. “We’re in the middle of a trial.”
But in court, Sokolich described his town as being in complete gridlock when the local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge were reduced from three to one.
He said traffic did not move because the closure of the lanes – used by drivers in Fort Lee and neighboring towns – jammed up local streets.
So Sokolich said he called his friend Baroni, Christie’s second in command at the Port Authority. Sokolich said Baroni had always been there for him in those four days in September 2013, when he got radio silence.
Voice messages from the mayor to Baroni played in court.
On the first day of the jams, Sokolich pleaded, “The bigger problem, getting kids to school, help please, it’s maddening.”
On the second day, Sokolich said: “Have complete town that’s in revolt. Who is mad at me?” and: “Rather urgent. Please call.”
Sloan asked Baroni defense attorney Michael Baldassare about Sokolich’s testimony. She noted that the close relationship that Sokolich described with Baroni seemed to be contrary to what Baldassare had said in court on Monday.
Baldassare only said, “We’ll deal with it all tomorrow.”
Sokolich also testified that his relationship with a liaison from a department that defendant Kelly led also went sour when the mayor said he would not endorse Christie.
He said around that time, Kelly’s email reading, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” was sent.
“An allegation that Bridget Kelly would somehow want to exercise punishment against someone she’s never met, who’s had an excellent relationship with the department, and has been supportive, defies common sense,” said Kelly defense attorney Michael Critchley Sr.
But David Wildstein, Christie’s other appointee to the Port Authority who has cut a deal with prosecutors, claimed that he, along with Baroni and Kelly, came up with the lane closure scheme. Wildstein also claimed that he told Christie about it during a Sept. 11 memorial event.
Earlier Tuesday, Fort Lee Police Chief Keith Bendul appeared in court to testify, CBS2’s Christine Sloan reported. Bendul described heavy traffic near the bridge and testified that an official from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey told him to “have the mayor call Baroni.”
Bendul recounted meeting Robert Durando, the Port Authority official in charge of the bridge, in a municipal lot on the morning of Sept. 9, 2013, as traffic engulfed the town.
Bendul said when he upbraided Durando about the new traffic pattern that reduced three access lanes between Fort Lee and the bridge to one, Durando told him, “Have the mayor call Baroni.”
In opening statements Monday, the prosecution told jurors that Wildstein would testify that he and former bridge authority executive Baroni “bragged” about the traffic problems in Fort Lee and the mayor not getting his calls returned.
Kelly and Baroni claim their actions weren’t criminal and the alleged scheme was orchestrated by Wildstein, who pleaded guilty to two criminal counts in May.
Defense attorneys portrayed Wildstein as a political opportunist and bully who was Christie’s eyes and ears at the agency, where Baroni was deputy executive director.
Baroni’s attorney slammed Wildstein, calling him a “liar,” a “vicious guy,” a “bully,” a “horrible person,” and “vindictive,” and adding that the government “made a deal with the devil” in the plea deal for Wildstein – who will be testifying against Baroni and Kelly.
The defense said Wildstein wanted to gain favor with Christie, then a leading candidate on the Republican side for the U.S. presidency.
Kelly and Baroni are charged with conspiracy, wire fraud, deprivation of civil rights and fraudulently using an agency that receives federal funds. The most serious charge carries a 20-year maximum prison sentence.
Christie has has said he didn’t know about the Bridgegate plot.
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