Stile: Bill Baroni’s innocent bystander defense in Bridgegate trial raises questions

October 18, 2016

In the Port Authority’s organizational flow chart, Bill Baroni, the deputy executive director, outranked his longtime friend David Wildstein.

But it was Wildstein, Governor Christie’s henchman-at-large with the newly-created “director of Interstate Capital Projects” title who called all the shots at the bistate agency, Baroni explained Monday in federal court.

Baroni described himself just as an out-of-the-loop ambassador dutifully following Wildstein’s directives over a five-day stretch in September 2013, when Wildstein ordered the abrupt closing of two approach lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee.

He obeyed Wildstein’s order to ignore frantic cries of Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, whose streets had become paralyzed with gridlock, Baroni told jurors. Wildstein worried that if Baroni called back Sokolich, he would “wimp out” and tell Sokolich about their secret “traffic study” that gridlocked Fort Lee, Baroni testified on his first day on the witness stand.

“He said, ‘Let me handle it,’” said Baroni, who is on trial as a co-conspirator lane closing plot that prosecutors say was carried out to punish Sokolich, a Democrat, for refusing to endorse Christie’s reelection.

“I listened to him and I have regretted it ever since,” Baroni said.

Casting himself as guileless public servant, duped by the devious Wildstein — who testified as a cooperating government witness earlier this month — is central to Baroni’s defense.

It’s an almost the complete opposite of the government’s portrayal of the Baroni who collaborated on the payback scheme with Wildstein and Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’ former deputy chief of staff and then pitched a fictitious explanation to a skeptical Legislature and public. Both Kelly and Baroni are facing nine felony counts of conspiracy, misuse of public property and other charges.

But Baroni’s defense also hews to the see-no evil, hear-no-evil posture of other senior Christie officials swept up in the bridge lane scandal. Charles McKenna, Christie’s former chief counsel, testified last week that he continued to believe the official “traffic study” explanation in late 2013 even after the top official at the Port Authority, Pat Foye had publicly testified that no such study took place.

The testimony of others pointed to a series of red flag warnings about possible administration involvement that Christie officials didn’t probe too hard or ignored. Christie publicly absolved his staff on Dec. 13, 2013, even though he was told the night before by aide Deborah Gramiccioni that there was buzz going around about emails suggesting Kelly’s involvement,

And then there is Baroni, who said he almost reflexively accepted Wildstein’s explanations at face value — even when he became alarmed when Sokolich wrote him a letter, raising concerns that the lanes had been closed to punish Sokolich.

“I said ‘David, tell me right now, is this true? Is there anything to this?’” He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Absolutely not,’” Baroni testified.

He added, “I believed David Wildstein.”

Yet, Baroni’s innocent bystander defense raises questions and doubts. It’s hard to believe that Baroni, a former legislator, a fast-on-his-feet political operative who once argued election law in high-profile Supreme Court cases, would suddenly lose his nerve and reveal everything to Sokolich.

And he had reason to question Wildstein’s veracity. Baroni testified he knew of the Wildstein’s claim that, as a young Republican operative in 1982, he stole then Democratic U.S. candidate Frank Lautenberg’s suit jacket right before a debate. Wildstein recounted the story on the witness stand earlier this month.

Asked if he believed the story, Baroni said, “No. I pretty much figured that was a tall tale.”

At one point early during the lane closings, Baroni testified that he was apparently incredulous to learn that the massive tie ups caused by closing the two lanes in Fort Lee resulted in just a four-minute savings for most New York-bound drivers who approach the bridge from Route 80.

“I said: David, we had a four-minute savings. And this is for a four-minute savings?” he testified.

Yet, in his Nov. 25, 2013, appearance before a legislative committee, Baroni cited the four-minute time savings as an promising, preliminary finding of their “study,” and that closing the two lanes in Fort Lee might be warranted. The four-minute savings, then, helped boost the argument that it was a legitimate traffic study as the reason for the lane closings.

Baroni’s remarks before the Legislature were prepared as part of a joint effort between Port Authority and Christie administration officials. He was getting a lot of advice and editing. He stayed on message. He was in the loop. But on Monday, he told the jurors that he was out of the loop, willing to believe in anything his old friend and subordinate told him.