Key developments in the New Jersey bridge lane-closing trial

AP News
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Posted: Sep 25, 2016 3:17 PM

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The first week's testimony in the George Washington Bridge lane-closing trial has been aimed at putting two former allies of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at the center of a plot to punish a local mayor who didn't endorse the Republican governor.

But revelations about Christie's office behind-the-scenes and at the Port Authority that operates the bridge have gotten at least as much attention. Here are key developments in the trial so far of Bill Baroni and Bridget Kelly, accused of causing traffic jams in 2013 to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat. The trial continues this week.

ENDORSEMENTS FOR SALE?

Star government witness David Wildstein, testifying Friday, portrayed the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, his former employer, as a fulfillment center for Christie's office to pluck political favors to use for attracting campaign endorsements from local New Jersey politicians.

He testified it was always the governor's office, through Kelly, the head of an office charged with interacting with local officials, that was "the deliverer of good news" when grants or other favors were awarded.

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THE 'I' WORD

New Jersey Democratic Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, who co-chaired an investigation into the closures, said Friday the possibility of impeaching Christie would have to wait until the end of the trial "to see whatever else comes out."

No New Jersey governor has been impeached before. The Democrat-led Assembly would have to first vote on whether and on what charge to impeach, then the Democrat-led Senate would try the case. A two-thirds vote of senators is needed to convict.

Weinberg questioned whether there would be enough time for an impeachment given the proceeding wouldn't likely start until after the trial and could take months. Christie's term ends in January 2018.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto is not commenting on the trial or potential for an impeachment until the trial has concluded.

Among the revelations that came out during the trial was that, according to the government's opening statement, Wildstein and Baroni bragged about the lane closures in his presence at a 9/11 memorial event in New York while the traffic jams were in progress, contradicting Christie's earlier contentions.

Christie's office said last week he maintains he didn't become aware of the issue until weeks later when he read a newspaper report. His office also sent an excerpt from a taxpayer-funded report in 2014 that said Christie didn't recall talking with Baroni and Wildstein at the event except for "light banter" and that any mention of traffic "would not have been memorable to the Governor because traffic issues are a regular occurrence."

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CIRCLING THE WAGONS

Officials at the Port Authority have characterized the scandal as the work of a few rogue employees whose actions have overshadowed the efforts of thousands of other employees charged with operating New York area's bridges, tunnels, ports and airports as well as the World Trade Center.

While that may be true, testimony showed the lies and spin began almost immediately, and reached to the top levels of the agency. Executive Director Patrick Foye testified he authorized publishing a news release in the wake of the lane closures that he knew presented a false narrative: that the Port Authority was conducting a traffic safety study in Fort Lee near the bridge.

Behind the scenes, Foye's chief of staff, John Ma, had already reached out to a reporter — with Foye's knowledge — to spread the word that the traffic study was, in fact, bogus.

Defense attorneys also produced emails that purported to show the New York-appointed members of the bistate agency sought to use the bridge scandal as leverage against the New Jersey members in discussions over what to do with a marine terminal in Brooklyn and other issues.

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MR. UNPOPULARITY

Days after defense attorneys alternately portrayed Wildstein as a miserable, bullying boor in their opening statements, Foye and Ma provided more specific examples.

Ma testified employees reported being threatened by Wildstein if they didn't do his bidding. Foye said Wildstein was hated throughout the agency and was suspected at one time of secretly monitoring colleagues' phone calls. After Wildstein's resignation in December 2013, Foye said, he had the agency post pictures of Wildstein at all its facilities to warn employees to be on the lookout for him, "given what I knew about his personality."

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DAMN THOSE TRAFFIC JAMS

Sokolich, the alleged target of the scheme, testified gridlock is a fact of life in Fort Lee and admitted he had sought out Baroni's help in 2010 to ease traffic that was choking the town.

Sokolich also described how the town was sued by neighboring Leonia for diverting traffic so drivers coming through Leonia couldn't pass through Fort Lee to get to the bridge.

"Did you think you were committing a federal crime?" Baroni's attorney, Michael Baldassare, asked.

"No," Sokolich replied.

Sokolich also admitted he lied when he wrote in a letter to The Star-Ledger newspaper in November 2013 that media reports of political retaliation were "simply not true."

He testified he feared the governor's administration would torpedo a building project in his town if he told the truth.He testified he feared the governor's administration would torpedo a building project in his town if he told the truth.

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Associated Press writers Michael Catalini in Trenton and Dake Kang in Newark contributed to this report.