NEWARK – After nearly four weeks of trial in the Fort Lee lane closure trial, federal prosecutors rested their case on Thursday. In the weeks of testimony, the star witness for the prosecution, David Wildstein, acted as a cooperating witness as part of the plea deal he forged after already admitting his role in reducing the number of local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in September 2013 from three to one, a move that caused massive gridlock in the New Jersey host community of the bridge. Wildstein claims that he conspired with the defendants as an act of political retribution against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for his failure to endorse the New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for re-election.
With the prosecution done presenting their evidence, defense attorneys will now use the coming weeks to attempt to convince the jury that the story laid down by Wildstein is a misrepresentation of facts where their clients are concerned. On trial are former Deputy Executive Director of the Port Authority Bill Baroni (Christie’s highest appointee at the agency at the time of the lane reduction) and Bridget Anne Kelly, the former Christie Deputy Chief of Staff. Their attorneys are Michel Baldassare and Michael Critchley, respectively.
While neither defendant has made their way onto the stand for testimony as of now, the prosecution concluded their proceedings by letting the jury get a first person account from Baroni via the testimony he gave to the New Jersey Assembly Transportation Committee in December 2013, two months after the lane closures. The testimony was presented as a combination of video and audio clips. It featured Baroni and members of the committee, most prominently Chairman Assemblyman John Wisniewski.
During the video of the testimony, Baroni regularly repeated claims that the “traffic study”—claimed by Wildstein to be a coverup concocted by officials including Baroni—came as a result of a policy concern over whether or not it was “fair” for Fort Lee to have the three lanes sectioned off for local access during peak morning commute hours when registered EZ Pass tags from that town account for only 4.5 percent of upper level bridge traffic. Members of the committee questioned Baroni’s statistics, inquiring why traffic from other nearby towns that use the local access lanes was not factored in to the figures he presented during his testimony.
“You’ve amply made your point, not that I agree with your point, but you’ve amply made your point,” Wisniewski told Baroni in the video footage after the then Port employee kept looping back the policy concern when asked things about why the “communications breakdowns” occurred and what the chain of command was that allowed the lane realignment to occur.
During his legislative testimony, Baroni also mentioned Port Authority PBA President Paul Nunziato and Vice President Michael DeFilippis and claimed that the two officers requested the traffic study. During their Tuesday testimony, Nunziato and DeFilippis claimed they were asked to lie by Baroni and take some responsibility for the lane realignment. The footage from the legislative hearing underscores that as the two officers said, Baroni proceeded with the statement despite their refusal to take responsibility for the closures.
Baroni is expected to testify in court as early as next week with Kelly likely to testify the following week. They face nine counts of conspiracy, fraud and related charges.