By Joseph Ax
NEWARK, N.J. (Reuters) - After days of complaints about traffic jams at a major New York bridge in 2013, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's associate demanded to know if lane closures were political retribution, he testified on Monday.
On trial over his alleged role in the "Bridgegate" scandal, Bill Baroni, Christie's top political appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said he confronted fellow authority executive David Wildstein to ask whether the lane closures in September 2013 were an act of retribution against the Democratic mayor of a commuter town.
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"I said, 'David, tell me right now, is this true?'" Baroni testified in federal court in Newark, where he is on trial on fraud charges. "He looked me in the eye and said, 'Absolutely not.'"
In his first day of testimony, Baroni asserted that Wildstein orchestrated the lane closures without his knowledge to punish Mark Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee, for his refusal to endorse Christie's re-election bid.
Baroni also rejected Wildstein's contention that they discussed the scheme with Christie as it was unfolding.
Christie had soared to national prominence in late 2012 for his response to Superstorm Sandy and wanted to use that spotlight, and an aura of bipartisan spirit, to catapult himself towards the White House. But the scandal hurt his image and his campaign ultimately collapsed early this year, though he has always denied involvement.
Baroni's story was entirely at odds with the narrative U.S. prosecutors have presented at trial. They have accused Baroni, Wildstein and former Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly of conspiring to create the traffic jam to punish Sokolich.
Kelly, on trial alongside Baroni, is also expected to testify. Wildstein has pleaded guilty and appeared as the government's star witness earlier in the case.
Baroni said he confronted Wildstein after receiving a letter from Sokolich suggesting the closures had "punitive overtones."
But during cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Cortes pointed out that days before, Sokolich left him a voicemail asking "who's mad at me?"
"So the first time you heard from him, he was asking if someone was mad at him? It wasn’t Thursday?" Cortes asked.
Baroni said he believed Wildstein's representation that the George Washington Bridge lane closure was part of a traffic study and that he should not respond to Sokolich.
"I've regretted it ever since," Baroni said.
Wildstein said he and Baroni invented the traffic study as a cover story.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; editing by Scott Malone and Cynthia Osterman)