- Port Authority’s Foye says Christie ally wanted delays resumed
- Defense attorneys attack credibility of government witnesses
The government official who ended four days of gridlock at the George Washington Bridge in 2013 admitted that he misled the public about why the traffic jams occurred.
Patrick Foye, who oversees the agency that runs the bridge, testified Wednesday at the trial of two allies of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie accused of ordering access lanes to the bridge closed to punish a mayor who didn’t back the Republican’s re-election. Mark Sokolich, Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, also admitted in testimony that he lied in the days after the shutdown.
The testimony came in the third 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, which runs the bridge. Foye described how he ordered the lanes reopened and rebuffed efforts by Baroni to reclose them. Defense attorneys sought to attack the credibility of Foye and Sokolich.
Kelly attorney Michael Critchley asked Foye why he approved a false press release on the last day of the lane closings that said the agency was conducting a traffic study.
“You knew it was false?” Critchley asked.
“I didn’t believe it was true,” Foye said, the port authority’s executive director, appointed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat.
“Are you proud of yourself?,” Critchley asked.
“I was focused on opening the lanes,” said Foye.
Earlier Wednesday, Foye told jurors that after learning on the fourth day of the gridlock, he sent an e-mail the next morning that reopened the lanes. His missive called the gridlock in Fort Lee a threat to public safety and a violation of state and federal laws.
Under questioning by prosecutors, Foye said that after he reopened the lanes, Baroni asked him to reverse his decision. Foye refused.
“I said absolutely not,” Foye said. “Someone could die in the back of an ambulance. He said the issue was important to Trenton. I took that to be the governor’s office.”
Critchley suggested Foye was trying to protect New York’s interests and pet projects just as Baroni and other Christie appointees did so for New Jersey at the bi-state agency. Foye said in a Sept. 15, 2013, e-mail to Commissioner Scott Rechler, then the vice chairman, that they should “raise Fort Lee” in closed-door executive session the next week.
Rechler responded that they should make a “game-day decision” depending on “how New Jersey is behaving with respect to our issues.”
Prosecutors say Kelly and Baroni conspired with another Port Authority official, David Wildstein, to misuse agency property by closing lanes to punish Sokolich. Baroni and Wildstein falsely claimed to Foye and others that the lane closings were part of a traffic study, prosecutors say. Wildstein, who pleaded guilty, will testify as a prosecution witness.
Sokolich came under similarly harsh questioning from defense lawyers. He had testified about his exasperation at failing to get answers for four days from Baroni or anyone in the governor’s office about why the lanes were closed.
“It completely shut us down," the mayor said. "We were getting complaints from our emergency responders. It really was chaos.”
He said he suspected he was being punished after Christie’s office wooed him for his political endorsement. But on cross-examination, Critchley asked why he wrote a letter to a newspaper days after the gridlock saying he didn’t believe it was political payback. Sokolich told jurors it was a lie.
“Proud of yourself? Proud of lying to the public?” Critchley said.
“I am not proud,” the mayor said.
He went on to say he wanted to protect a $1 billion redevelopment project in Fort Lee that needed a series of state agency approvals.
“I was petrified of further retribution,” Sokolich said. “It would have brought that project to a standstill. I wanted to do everything possible to keep Fort Lee out of this story.”
Legislative hearings in New Jersey and a U.S. criminal investigation of the lane closings tarred Christie’s administration and helped doom his Republican bid for the White House this year. Christie is now a top adviser to Republican nominee Donald Trump.
The case is U.S. v. Baroni, 15-cr-00193, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Newark).