(Recasts throughout with additional testimony)
By Joseph Ax
NEWARK, N.J. Oct 17 After days of complaints
about traffic jams at a major New York bridge in 2013, New
Jersey Governor Chris Christie's associate demanded to know if
lane closures were political retribution, he testified on
On trial over his alleged role in the "Bridgegate" scandal,
Bill Baroni, Christie's top political appointee at the Port
Authority of New York and New Jersey, said he confronted fellow
authority executive David Wildstein to ask whether the lane
closures in September 2013 were an act of retribution against
the Democratic mayor of a commuter town.
"I said, 'David, tell me right now, is this true?'" Baroni
testified in federal court in Newark, where he is on trial on
fraud charges. "He looked me in the eye and said, 'Absolutely
In his first day of testimony, Baroni asserted that
Wildstein orchestrated the lane closures without his knowledge
to punish Mark Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee, for his refusal
to endorse Christie's re-election bid.
Baroni also rejected Wildstein's contention that they
discussed the scheme with Christie as it was unfolding.
Christie had soared to national prominence in late 2012 for
his response to Superstorm Sandy and wanted to use that
spotlight, and an aura of bipartisan spirit, to catapult himself
towards the White House. But the scandal hurt his image and his
campaign ultimately collapsed early this year, though he has
always denied involvement.
Baroni's story was entirely at odds with the narrative U.S.
prosecutors have presented at trial. They have accused Baroni,
Wildstein and former Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget
Kelly of conspiring to create the traffic jam to punish
Kelly, on trial alongside Baroni, is also expected to
testify. Wildstein has pleaded guilty and appeared as the
government's star witness earlier in the case.
Baroni said he confronted Wildstein after receiving a letter
from Sokolich suggesting the closures had "punitive overtones."
But during cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee
Cortes pointed out that days before, Sokolich left him a
voicemail asking "who's mad at me?"
"So the first time you heard from him, he was asking if
someone was mad at him? It wasn't Thursday?" Cortes asked.
Baroni said he believed Wildstein's representation that the
George Washington Bridge lane closure was part of a traffic
study and that he should not respond to Sokolich.
"I've regretted it ever since," Baroni said.
Wildstein said he and Baroni invented the traffic study as a
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; editing by Scott Malone and Cynthia