NEWARK, N.J. - For most of Gov. Christie's tenure, Mayor Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee had a friendly and cooperative relationship with the governor's office and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Sokolich told jurors Tuesday at the George Washington Bridge lane-closure trial that he had been invited to sit in the governor's box at Giants games, to lunch with a couple of other mayors and Christie at the governor's mansion in Princeton, and to attend Christie's budget addresses at the Statehouse. The Republican governor sent the borough a flag that had flown over ground zero.
In return, Sokolich supported some of Christie's initiatives and even cooked for the Christie staffer who tried to court the mayor for an endorsement.
Because the bridge leads from Fort Lee to New York, Sokolich, a Democrat, also wanted to establish a good relationship with the Port Authority, which owns and operates the span.
To that end, Sokolich met Bill Baroni, after Christie appointed Baroni to be the agency's deputy executive director in 2010.
"When Fort Lee has any issues, don't hesitate to contact me," Baroni told Sokolich in the mayor's office during their first meeting, according to Sokolich's testimony Tuesday.
For 31/2 years, Baroni tended to the mayor's needs and ensured that Fort Lee had a partner at the Port Authority. That seemed to change abruptly in September 2013, when, according to prosecutors, Baroni conspired with his second-in-command, David Wildstein, and Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff, to cause days of gridlock in Fort Lee.
Their objective, prosecutors say, was to punish the mayor for his refusal to endorse the governor's reelection campaign.
Sokolich said he first met Wildstein when Baroni enlisted his deputy to give the mayor and his cousins a tour of the World Trade Center.
"It was odd to me," Sokolich said. "He said, 'Aha, I've got to be nice to you, I'm told.' I only remember it because he said it multiple times within my initial minute of meeting him."
Sokolich did not complete his testimony Tuesday, and defense attorneys are expected to cross-examine the mayor Wednesday.
Kelly and Baroni are charged with nine felonies each, including misusing the Port Authority's resources, wire fraud, and violating Fort Lee residents' civil rights to move freely about their town.
Wildstein pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy charges and is expected to be the government's star witness.
Attorneys for Kelly and Baroni say Wildstein is a pathological liar who manipulated their clients into thinking the lane closures were part of a legitimate traffic study.
On the second day of trial at a federal courthouse here, the jury heard how Sokolich and Fort Lee's police chief, Keith Bendul, woke up to the infamous traffic jam on Sept. 9, 2013.
The Port Authority had closed two of three access lanes in Fort Lee that lead to toll booths at the bridge, essentially shutting down the 2½-square-mile town of 37,000 people.
Bendul told jurors he sought a meeting with Robert Durando, the bridge's general manager. Durando suggested they meet in a municipal lot behind Port Authority headquarters - not at the police station or his own office.
"I thought it was really weird," Bendul said. "I thought it was cloak-and-dagger."
The chief said he told Durando that public safety was being compromised: There was a missing 4-year-old child and a cardiac-arrest call.
"I was hot," Bendul said. "I asked him what was going on. He told me it was a traffic study. I told him it was a miserable failure. End it, stop it."
Bendul said he had been told initially that the "traffic study" was going to last 30 days. The lanes were reopened Sept. 13 after a Port Authority appointee of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo learned of the gridlock.
Defense attorneys tried to undercut prosecutors' arguments that the lane closures threatened public safety.
For example, Kelly's attorney, Michael Critchley Sr., grilled Bendul about a lawsuit an adjacent town, Leonia, had filed against Fort Lee a few years ago for closing a road and causing traffic congestion.
The road closure, Critchley said, was a public-safety hazard that "impacted emergency vehicles and school buses, correct?"
"That was their claim, which I would disagree with," the police chief responded.
For his part, Sokolich recounted how he sent scores of messages to Baroni seeking an explanation and an end to the lane closures. Baroni didn't respond; his attorney told jurors Monday that his client was obeying orders from "Trenton."
It wasn't always that way. Baroni helped provide $5,000 in Port Authority money to buy Fort Lee's fire department some new equipment, for example, Sokolich said.
And Baroni himself gave Sokolich a tour of the World Trade Center while it was under construction and closed to the public, the mayor said.
Sokolich sent him a thank-you note, which read: "I've never been more proud to be a citizen of the United States of America."
Prosecutors showed jurors a photo taken that day of Sokolich with Baroni at the site.
It is still framed in the mayor's office.