As a state lawmaker, Bill Baroni pushed for good government and ethics reform. A Republican who enjoyed a reputation for his sometimes bold stands on controversial matters, Baroni stood out from his colleagues for supporting anti-corruption legislation, as well as some socially liberal causes. That’s why it’s surprising that now, as a former Port Authority executive, he finds himself accused of a petty but serious set of federal crimes -- misusing his government position to get back at a political adversary.
Baroni, who served in the Legislature from 2004 until 2010, clung to his earlier image yesterday in his first public appearance since being named in aannounced Friday by U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman. Those charges came out more than a year after Fishman’s office acknowledged it was looking into the 2013 George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal known as “Bridgegate.”
“I have spent my entire career trying to do the right thing,” Baroni said while speaking to reporters outside the federal courthouse in Newark. “I am an innocent man.”
Baroni, who resigned from the Port Authority in December 2013, appeared in federal court yesterday morning with former Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly. Both are charged with conspiring with former Port Authority official David Wildstein to back up traffic in Fort Lee for several days in September 2013 to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie’s successful bid for reelection that year.
Baroni and Kelly entered pleas of not guilty during their arraignment before Judge Susan D. Wigenton. Neither spoke during the proceeding, but they warmly greeted each other after entering the courtroom separately with their respective attorneys.
The two were each released on $150,000 bail, and a trial was scheduled by Wigenton for July. Wildstein, a former schoolmate of Christie’s at Livingston High School, pleaded guilty tolast Friday and has been cooperating with Fishman’s investigation.
Wildstein faces 21 months to 27 months in prison for his role in the alleged plot, while Baroni and Kelly both could face slightly more time in prison, Fishman said.
It was Kelly who wrote the August 2013 “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email that set off the scandal when it surfaced publicly in January 2014. Fishman’s indictment papers allege Kelly, Baroni, and Wildstein were working together to get back at Sokolich, holding off the lane closures for a month until September to coincide with the start of the new school yearin Fort Lee.
But Kelly’s lawyer, Michael Critchley, told reporters after they left the courthouse yesterday that he’s confident Kelly will eventually be exonerated. His client is also ready to testify at trial to prove her innocence.
“She will be found not guilty,” Critchley said.
And when asked if he plans to subpoena Christie himself as a witness at the trial, Critchley said he would subpoena “anybody” who could help prove his client’s innocence.
On Friday, in her first public comments, Kelly said it is “ludicrous” to believe she was the only one in Christie’s office to know about the “George Washington Bridge issue.”
Baroni also spoke to reporters for the first time since his resignation, saying he’s also anxious to testify and clear his name.
“I will testify on my own behalf as soon as the trial begins,” said Baroni, who did not take any questions.
It was Baroni who in 2007 after two fellow state Assembly members were charged in a federal bribery sting pressed for campaign-finance reform, saying the issue had a become “a crisis” for the Legislature. And when he went on to serve in the state Senate, Baronito increase the statute of limitations on public corruption. He also sought a constitutional amendment that would have resulted in the suspension of lawmakers .
Baroni, who chaired John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign in New Jersey, represented one the state’s few swing districts covering Mercer and Middlesex counties. His appointment to the deputy executive director post at the Port Authority -- New Jersey’s top staff position at the bi-state agency -- also came as Christie was preparing to advance a number of reforms that would have forced Baroni to either buck the governor or the many public workers who he represented.
But he was also known for breaking ranks with the Senate’s GOP caucus at times on high-profile legislation, including for the legalization of medical marijuana and same-sex marriage.Baroni pointed to those votes yesterday, saying those are the types of issues one stakes a career on.
“I would never risk my reputation, my career, my freedom, for something like this,” Baroni said in response to the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s allegations.
But Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said she noticed a change in Baroni after he left the Legislature. The two worked closely together on the same-sex marriage bill, and Baroni earned a “tremendous amount of respect” from her, Weinberg said in an interview yesterday.
Baroni, however, aggressively fired back at Weinberg and other lawmakers who were looking into toll and fare hikes the Port Authority abruptly passed in 2011. He also tried to publicly embarrass the late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg during a contentious hearing in Washington, D.C., convened in 2012 to look into how the toll hikes were passed with little opportunity for public comment.
Weinberg also pointed to Baroni’s aggressive appearance before a legislative committee in November 2013, when he sought to convince lawmakers that Fort Lee residents unfairly had their own access lanes onto the George Washington Bridge, and that the lanes were closed that September as part of a legitimate traffic study.
Those lanes, she said, take in local traffic coming in from a number of surrounding communities in addition to Fort Lee, including Edgewater, Leonia, and Teaneck. The federal indictment papers call the traffic study a “cover story.”
“He spun the tale,” said Weinberg, who went on to chair the legislative committee that investigated the lane closures for much of last year.
Asked if she could reconcile the man she knew as a colleague in the Legislature with the one accused in the lane-closure case, Weinberg said she doesn’t know “if it is possible.”
“While I had a great deal of respect for Sen. Bill Baroni, my experience with Port Authority deputy executive director Bill Baroni has been very different,” Weinberg said.