Bill Baroni, one of two defendants in the Bridgegate case, took the stand Monday to defend himself from federal charges in the Bridgegate case. It is unusual — and risky — to testify in your own defense in federal court. Jurors had already learned a lot about Baroni, who up to this point was sitting silently, sometimes shaking his head, at the defense table. Now, they’ve heard from Baroni himself. Here’s what jurors may have taken away from his first day of testimony:
- Baroni was abandoned at birth by his Irish immigrant mother and left at a Catholic Charities facility in Florida. Weeks later he was adopted by a couple in Hamilton, NJ. He was raised in New Jersey, went to college in Washington, DC, and then entered a weight loss program at Duke University. He weighed 312 pounds at the time.
- Baroni went to law school after being inspired by an attorney who helped him when his mother became gravely ill. He went on to represent politicians of both parties, including Democrat Cory Booker, as an election lawyer. Baroni served in the state Assembly and later the state Senate, concurrently working as an FBI informant where he helped to build corruption cases within the Statehouse. He said he met with his FBI handler every couple of months and shared tidbits about what he heard as a lawmaker in Trenton.
- As a liberal Republican in the Legislature — pro-union, pro-environment, pro-gay marriage — Baroni said he had a tough time. He faced death threats for his position on marriage equality, he said. So when Gov. Chris Christie offered him a position running the Port Authority, he took it. He said he was hired to break up logjams there, because he had a record of reaching across the aisle.
- But the real powers at the Port Authority, Baroni said, were David Wildstein, his underling and an admitted Bridgegate conspirator, and David Samson, the Port Authority chairman and best friend of the governor. Both Wildstein and Samson answered to “Trenton” — aka, the governor. Baroni, meanwhile, said toward the end of his tenure the only time he ever even spoke to the governor was at public events.
- Throughout his testimony Baroni insisted that he believed Wildstein’s story — that the lanes were closed due to a traffic study. Why didn’t he answer the calls and texts from Mark Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee, who had said the resulting traffic jams threatened public safety? “I listened to David Wildstein when he said to me that if I called the mayor back, that because of my relationship, that I would wimp out, give in, and stop, ruin the study, which was very important,” Baroni testified. “And he said to me, David said to me: ‘Let me handle it.’ And I listened to him, and I have regretted it ever since.” Baroni repeatedly said he “regretted” listening to Wildstein.
- At one point, after hearing the allegation that the traffic jams could be retaliatory, Baroni said he confronted Wildstein: “I said, ‘David, tell me right now, is this true? Is there anything to this?’ He looked at me right in the eye and said, ‘Absolutely not.'”
- Baroni could be circumspect under aggressive cross-examination from Lee Cortes, the assistant US Attorney and lead prosecutor on the case. Cortes showed Baroni slides with evidence, mostly correspondence with Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, indicating their close relationship in an effort to show how suspicious it was when Baroni ignored Sokolich’s complaints about the traffic. When Cortes asked Baroni if he remembered writing and receiving certain emails and texts from Sokolich — and when Cortes asked Baroni other questions of fact — Baroni sometimes responded with: “I think so,” “sure” and “I’ll take your word.”
- Cortes could be condescending to Baroni, at one point saying: “Gridlock! You understand that word, right?”
- Baroni disputed a key part of Wildstein’s testimony — that during a Sept. 11 anniversary ceremony at Ground Zero, Wildstein told Christie that the ongoing traffic jam in Fort Lee was retaliatory in nature. Baroni said the men did talk about Fort Lee, but only in the context of a legitimate traffic study and a plan for Christie to solve the traffic issues on the approach to the upper deck of the George Washington Bridge. As for the fact that the men are smiling in the picture? That may have been because they were laughing about Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, who arrived to the ceremony via motorcycle with Billy Joel.
- On the fifth day of traffic, the lanes were reopened by Pat Foye, the Port Authority’s Executive Director. Samson ordered Baroni to reopen the lanes, Baroni testified, and also “punch Pat Foye in the face.”
The cross-examination of Baroni continues on Tuesday.