Bridge defendant: Top officials knew traffic study story

Facing a barrage of pointed questions in federal court Tuesday, former Port Authority of NY and New Jersey executive Bill Baroni said he regretted his role in politically motivated lane closures at the George Washington Bridge in 2013.

And Baroni was one of the few people who knew one of Wildstein's closest-held secrets: He was "Wally Edge", the anonymous political blogger who ran a website about New Jersey politics from 2000 to 2010.

Wildstein, who pleaded guilty to the conspiracy a year ago, is cooperating with prosecutors in the hope of a more lenient sentence.

Now, Baroni is likely to respond with testimony that he truly believed the lanes were closed as part of a traffic review, and that Wildstein is lying. Wildstein has pleaded guilty in the political revenge scheme and Baroni maintained Monday that he believed the closures on the bridge that connects New Jersey and NY were part of a traffic study. Defense lawyer Michael Baldassare said in his opening statement last month that Baroni "was told that the study was important to Trenton and if the mayor was called back it would mess up the results". He told jurors the plan was to ignore Sokolich once the traffic problems began. Prosecutors say he knew that they had been meant to punish Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, because he had declined to endorse Christie, a Republican.

At the conclusion of a Statehouse news conference on drug rehabilitation, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie shifts topics and denies any involvement in the Bridgegate scandal.

And then there is Baroni, who said he nearly 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.

Former Christie staffer Bridget Kelly (r.), who is also on trial for the lane closures, is expected to take the stand in her defense, as well.

At the same time, David Wildstein, another top Christie loyalist at the Port Authority, was impressing upon Baroni how vital it was that a purported traffic study continue. "You should go down there, testify, and tell the truth that that's what happened", Baroni recalled, adding, "And I believed David Wildstein". "He said, 'Let me handle this.' So I did, and I've regretted it ever since".

Baroni also testified that Gov. Christie was not told about the lane closures during a September 11 Memorial.

Cortes also drew attention to Baroni's combative appearance before a U.S. Senate transportation committee, in 2012, in which Baroni defended a series of unpopular Port Authority toll hikes.

But soon Christie sent Samson, whom Baroni described as the governor's best friend, to the agency as well, and the chairman made clear that he was to be Christie's point of contact. Christie's longtime claim that he had no knowledge of the traffic plot took a hit earlier in the trial when federal prosecutors introduced photographic evidence of him smiling on Day 3 of the lane closures.

Baroni was in the process of looking for his birth mother in Ireland at the time of the closures and cancelled a trip there in order to give legislative testimony. He repeatedly referred to the purported traffic study as Wildstein's and Christie's project.

"Bill Baroni is really facing an uphill battle", said Lee Vartan, a former federal prosecutor who's not involved in the case.

"I listened to David Wildstein", Baroni said when asked why he didn't return Sokolich's calls and text messages during the four days of gridlock. He said he had no control over Wildstein or ability to fire him. 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.

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