NEWARK - The executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey told jurors Wednesday that when he ordered lanes to the George Washington Bridge reopened following days of traffic jams in 2013, Gov. Christie's office wanted them closed again.
Patrick Foye, an appointee of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, testified that Bill Baroni, Christie's top executive appointee at the agency, told Foye on Sept. 13, 2013, that "senior staff had been briefed on the matter and it was important to Trenton."
"I took that to be the governor's office," Foye testified in the trial of Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff.
The testimony, on the third day of trial, came two days after a federal prosecutor said Christie learned about the lane closures as they were underway, when he attended a Sept. 11 commemorative event in Manhattan.
Christie has long maintained that he was not involved in the lane closures and didn't know about them until later. The blocking of the lanes caused gridlock in Fort Lee, Bergen County, for four days in September 2013.
Prosecutors say Baroni, who was deputy executive director at the Port Authority, and Kelly conspired to cause the traffic jams to punish Fort Lee's Democratic mayor for his refusal to endorse the Republican governor's reelection that year.
Working with David Wildstein, another top New Jersey official at the Port Authority, Kelly, Baroni, and "others" covered up the scheme by falsely promoting it as a traffic study, prosecutors say.
Kelly and Baroni are charged with misusing Port Authority resources, wire fraud, and depriving the residents of Fort Lee of the constitutional right to localized travel. The Port Authority owns and operates the bridge.
Wildstein pleaded guilty last year and is expected to testify for the government.
Called to testify by prosecutors, Foye explained that the lane closures did not follow proper Port Authority procedures used for traffic studies, such as detailed planning and communication with communities that may be affected.
"We don't do things like this," Foye said.
Foye's testimony also raised the prospect that Cuomo, New York's governor, may have been dragged into the bridge scandal.
Foye said that when he refused on Sept. 13, 2013, to reverse his decision to reopen the lanes, Baroni warned that "Trenton" might call.
"I took it to mean the governor's office in New Jersey would call or might call the governor's office in New York," Foye told jurors.
"I said they should call," he said.
It was not known if such a call was made.
Defense attorneys sought to weaken Foye's credibility, questioning his motives.
They depicted the Port Authority as a $4 billion treasure chest controlled by two governors whose chief allies at the agency constantly seek to undermine the other side in a game of cross-Hudson River power politics.
It's not a game Baroni played well, his attorney has said.
Michael Baldassare asked Foye: "Isn't it simply true that you knew about the lane closures, you knew about the problems, you knew everything," but he didn't act until Sept. 13 so he could "swoop in" and "look like the hero?"
No, Foye replied.
Under questioning from Kelly's attorney, Michael Critchley Sr., Foye admitted to approving the release of misleading statements to reporters about why the Port Authority had closed the lanes.
Foye said he learned of the lane closures in the late afternoon of Sept. 12 and met with two Port Authority officials the next morning to determine what was going on. They told him Wildstein was behind the closings.
Foye sent an email to various Port Authority officials later that morning explaining why he was ordering the lanes to be restored, citing, among other things, danger to the public.
That same day, Foye approved the release of a statement - which he said was crafted by Wildstein and Baroni - that claimed the lanes were closed as part of a review of traffic safety patterns.
The statement "is fine with me," Foye wrote in an email to Scott Rechler, vice chairman of the Port Authority's board and a fellow Cuomo appointee.
"You're saying to Rechler that it's OK to tell the world that the Port Authority was conducting a traffic study?" Critchley said. "And you knew that was false?"
"I didn't believe [the statement] was true," Foye said.
In earlier testimony, Foye had dismissed the statement as "Bill Baroni's mess, David Wildstein's mess."
Foye approved a similar statement a few days later.
"Giving false statements to the public - is that in the public interest?" Critchley asked, repeating how Foye had previously characterized the Port Authority's obligation to the public.
"Immaterial," Foye responded.
"Lies are immaterial?" Critchley countered.
Earlier Wednesday, jurors heard testimony from Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, who recounted his attempts during the lane closures to reach Baroni or his contact at the governor's office, Evan Ridley.
After calling Ridley multiple times from his personal phones, Sokolich eventually reached him on Sept. 12, the fourth day, when he used his son's cellphone.
When Ridley answered the phone, he was "rather cheery," an irritated Sokolich said, adding that the Christie staffer was like a "deer in headlights."
Ridley never followed through on his pledge to get back to Sokolich, the mayor said.
Baroni's office tried to arrange a meeting with Sokolich a couple of weeks after the lanes were reopened, but the mayor said he canceled out of frustration.
Baldassare suggested that Baroni might have been waiting for permission from Christie to meet Sokolich.
Defense attorneys tried to expose inconsistencies in Sokolich's story.
Critchley, for example, pointed out that even after Sokolich had determined that the lane closures were an act of political retribution, he wrote a letter to the editor of the Newark Star-Ledger nine days after Christie's reelection claiming that his failure to endorse the governor had nothing to do with the gridlock.
"Proud of yourself, lying to the public?" Critchley asked.
"I am not proud of lying to the public," the mayor replied. Questioned further by Assistant U.S. Attorney Vikas Khanna, Sokolich explained why he had lied in the newspaper: "I was petrified of further retribution."