NEWARK, N.J., Oct 17 (Reuters) - A former associate of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie denied any involvement in the “Bridgegate” scandal at his criminal trial on Monday, portraying himself as a duped victim of another Christie political appointee who has already pleaded guilty.
Bill Baroni, a former executive at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who was Christie’s top ally at the organization, and Bridget Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, are charged with conspiracy and other counts for closing down access lanes in 2013 at the busy George Washington Bridge to punish a local mayor for refusing to back the Republican governor’s re-election campaign.
Lawyers for the defendants have argued they are scapegoats by prosecutors for a scheme orchestrated by David Wildstein, another Port Authority executive who last year pleaded guilty and testified earlier as the prosecution’s star witness.
Baroni testified on Monday that he believed Wildstein had closed down the lanes as part of a legitimate traffic study to see whether conditions at toll booths could be improved, contradicting Wildstein’s assertion that the two men concocted a bogus study as a cover story.
Baroni also testified that the conversation Wildstein described with Christie was focused on the study and whether it would allow the governor to take credit for solving traffic problems at the bridge’s toll lanes.
“Was there any mention of punishment?” asked Jennifer Mara, one of Baroni’s lawyers.
“No,” he replied.
Baroni also attempted to address some of the prosecution’s most damning evidence, including an email exchange in which Wildstein instructed Baroni to maintain “radio silence” in response to frantic phone calls from Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich.
In a telephone conversation, Wildstein told him not to call the mayor back because Baroni would “wimp out” and ruin the study, according to Baroni.
“He said to me, ‘Let me handle it,'” Baroni said. “I have regretted it ever since.”
Wildstein earlier described a coordinated effort between himself, Baroni and Kelly to create a massive traffic jam in Fort Lee, New Jersey, as political payback for Sokolich.
He also testified that he and Baroni discussed the closures with Christie as they were ongoing.
The governor has denied any knowledge of the plot either before or during the traffic tie-up. The resulting scandal hampered his bid for the Republican presidential nomination and has continued to dog him as he serves as an advisor to New York real estate developer Donald Trump, the party’s nominee.
Kelly is expected to testify later in the trial. (Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Will Dunham)