- Fort Lee officials say they couldn’t get answers on gridlock
- Mayor Sokolich says he was wooed for years to endorse governor
The Democratic mayor of the New Jersey borough next to the George Washington Bridge testified that Republican Governor Chris Christie’s staff wooed him with gifts, meals and favors over three years to try to win his endorsement for their boss’s 2013 re-election campaign.
Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich testified Tuesday at the trial of two Christie allies accused of snarling traffic near the bridge to punish him for rebuffing their efforts, which included a lunch with Christie, New York Giants football games in the governor’s private box, and tours of the World Trade Center site with his allies.
Sokolich said he finally told Christie’s staff that crossing party lines would hurt him politically and professionally -- a decision that gave him reason to believe that he was being punished when the traffic jams hit Fort Lee in the first week of school in September 2013.
Sokolich’s testimony came on the second day of the trial of Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. The mayor recounted his mounting exasperation as he tried to find out why local access lanes at the bridge had been cut to one lane from three, creating “concrete gridlock” on local streets. Prosecutors showed jurors a series of text messages he sent to Baroni on the second day of the traffic debacle.
“As of yesterday we are in total gridlock,” Sokolich texted to Baroni at 7:41 a.m. “Same thing today. Have a town that is ready to revolt. Who’s mad at me?”
Five minutes later, Sokolich texted: “The bigger problem is getting kids to school. Help please. It’s maddening.”
Sokolich testified that Baroni didn’t respond to his texts or phone calls and ignored entreaties by other borough workers, including his police chief, who appeared in court earlier in the day.
“I was begging for someone to help,” Sokolich told jurors. “It was maddening. I’d never had the problem before.”
At the trial’s opening Monday in federal court in Newark, New Jersey, a prosecutor said Baroni and Kelly deliberately kept Sokolich in the dark, subjecting him to what they called “radio silence.” Another Port Authority official, David Wildstein, pleaded guilty to his role in the plot and will testify for the prosecution. In their opening, defense lawyers said Wildstein is a serial liar and manipulator who worked closely with Christie as his enforcer.
Sokolich, who will return to the witness stand Wednesday, recounted friendly meetings with Baroni that began in 2010 and continued until the lane shutdowns. Baroni gave him a tour of the World Trade Center, and Christie’s office gave him an American flag that flew over the site.
Baroni gave him a second tour of the World Trade Center in which Wildstein joined the group. Sokolich said that Wildstein behaved oddly.
“Initially, he said ‘Hello,’” Sokolich said. “Then he said, ‘So you’re the guy I’ve got to be nice to.’ He kept saying it. He said it three or four times within the initial minute of my meeting him.”
Sokolich also recounted a lunch he had on April 15, 2010, with Christie and two other mayors at Drumthwacket, the governor’s mansion.
“That’s a bucket-list item for a small-town mayor to have lunch with the governor” in a small crowd, Sokolich said.
Sokolich recounted a series of exchanges with one of Kelly’s subordinates in the governor’s office, Matthew Mowers. He said Mowers repeatedly named Democrats who endorsed Christie and asked whether Sokolich would consider joining them. At one point, Sokolich cooked lunch for Mowers at home. Sokolich said he wavered on an endorsement until finally saying no in the summer of 2013 after consulting a Democratic mentor.
“His reaction was, ‘Oh my goodness. You can’t do that,”’ Sokolich said. “‘How can you even think about that?’”
Sokolich appeared after Fort Lee Police Chief Keith Bendul testified that when the lanes were first closed, he asked the bridge’s manager why the borough hadn’t been notified. He was finally told it was part of a study. Traffic is a way of life in Fort Lee, Bendul said, but the gridlock created during the first week of school in September 2013 was the worst since the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Baroni and Wildstein were so committed to their plan to punish Mayor Sokolich that during those precious few minutes that they had alone with the governor, they bragged about the fact that there were traffic problems in Fort Lee and that Mayor Sokolich was not getting his calls returned,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Vikas Khanna said in opening statement on Monday.
The case is U.S. v. Baroni, 15-cr-00193, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Newark).