Defendant finishes testimony in New Jersey bridge trial
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) -- A former ally of Republican Gov. Chris Christie charged in the George Washington Bridge lane-closing case finished three days of testimony Wednesday by telling jurors he was left alone to explain to legislators in 2013 the series of traffic jams that prosecutors contend were part of a political revenge plot against a mayor who wouldn't endorse Christie.
Former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey executive Bill Baroni described how, in November 2013, "no one wanted anything to do with this issue," referring to the four days of gridlock in Fort Lee two months earlier. Prosecutors have characterized Baroni's testimony before a New Jersey legislative committee, in which he claimed the jams were part of a traffic study, as a fiction created to hide the plot's true intention.
"Everyone was running away. I was the one out there," Baroni testified Wednesday. He added that two Port Authority police officials who he claimed had suggested studying the access lanes to the bridge told him days before his legislative testimony that they "wanted to stay out of it." That contradicted the two officials' testimony that Baroni had sought to use them as cover.
Baroni and former Christie staffer Bridget Kelly are charged with causing gridlock at the bridge linking New Jersey and New York to punish Democratic Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich. Christie wasn't charged.
Kelly is also expected to testify. Baroni and Kelly face nine counts, the most serious of which carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence.
Baroni contended during testimony Monday that he was duped by Port Authority colleague David Wildstein, the self-styled architect of the scheme. Wildstein pleaded guilty last year and testified against Baroni and Kelly.
Baroni also told jurors that several upper-level officials in Christie's office and at the Port Authority either knew of his impending legislative testimony or helped him prepare for it. Those included former Port Authority Chairman David Samson, a Christie mentor who headed his transition team, as well as Christie's chief counsel.
Prosecutors cast doubt Tuesday on Baroni's characterization of his relationship with Wildstein, a political blogger and former high school classmate of Christie's who was handed a Port Authority job in 2010 that was created especially for him.
Baroni testified he was not close with Wildstein, but prosecutors introduced evidence that they had talked more than 2,700 times on the phone in 2013 alone. They also showed a picture of Baroni hoisting Wildstein into the air in a chair at the bar mitzvah for Wildstein's son.
Later Wednesday morning, former Christie press secretary Michael Drewniak testified that he believed early on that the traffic jams were part of a bridge authority traffic study. Drewniak also said he didn't ask Christie if he knew about them.
Drewniak, who was called to the stand by Kelly's defense attorney, said he first heard Wildstein's account of the gridlock in Fort Lee a few days after it ended. Prosecutors say Wildstein's story was a lie to cover up the real reason for the scheme.
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