NEWARK, N.J. — The head of the agency that operates the George Washington Bridge testified Wednesday a former colleague charged with causing gridlock for political retribution tried to persuade him to keep traffic lanes closed because it was “important to Trenton,” which he took to mean Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s office.
Patrick Foye later acknowledged during cross-examination he approved sending press releases promoting a false story about the traffic jams.
Foye’s testimony put the focus on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge and New York-area airports, tunnels, transit hubs and the World Trade Center.
Foye, the agency’s executive director, put a stop to the four days of September 2013 traffic jams in Fort Lee that the government has charged were part of a political vendetta against the town’s Democratic mayor for not endorsing Christie for re-election.
He described ordering the reopening of the lanes on Sept. 13, 2013, after receiving reports of massive gridlock for days. Later that day, he testified, he met twice with deputy executive director Bill Baroni, Christie’s top appointee to the agency.
Baroni and Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, are accused of reducing access lanes to the bridge and face fraud, conspiracy and civil rights charges. They have pleaded not guilty and have said the government has twisted federal law to turn their actions into crimes. They also have said other people with more power and influence were involved in the lane closures but aren’t being prosecuted.
Baroni asked Foye at both meetings to close the lanes again because it was “important to Trenton,” Foye testified. Foye said he took that to mean Christie’s office, which was located there. Foye also testified Baroni told him Christie’s senior staff had been briefed.
Christie isn’t charged and has denied knowledge of the plan until well after it was put into action. However, prosecutors said in opening statements Monday that jurors would hear testimony that people bragged about the scheme to Christie on the third day of the four days of closures.
During often testy cross-examination Wednesday, defense attorneys tried to show Foye knew about the closures earlier than he said and waited a day to stop them so he could “swoop in and look like a hero.”
Pressed by attorney Michael Critchley, representing Kelly, Foye admitted approving shortly after the closures press releases that he knew outlined a false narrative — that the reduction of bridge access lanes in Fort Lee was part of a traffic study.
“When the buck came to you, you allowed a false press release to go out?” Critchley asked.
“The statement wasn’t true. I let it go out, yes,” Foye responded.
Earlier Wednesday, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich testified he initially denied the lane closures were political payback because he was afraid the governor’s administration would torpedo a building project in his town. The bridge, one of the busiest in the world, crosses the Hudson River and connects Fort Lee and New York City.
Sokolich wrote a letter to the editor of The Star-Ledger newspaper in November 2013, after the election, saying media reports of political retaliation were “simply not true.”
That clashed with his testimony Tuesday, when he said he had “strong suspicions” that was indeed the case when Baroni and others didn’t respond to his repeated requests for help during the lane closures.
“Which was the lie?” Critchley asked Sokolich on cross-examination.
“You just read it,” Sokolich responded, referring to the letter.
Later, during redirect by the government, Sokolich explained, saying, “I was petrified of further retribution. I wanted to do everything possible to keep the borough of Fort Lee out of this story. That was what I viewed as my primary function as mayor.”
Testimony is scheduled to resume Thursday with two Port Authority employees, including one who witnessed the meetings between Foye and Baroni, and a former Christie campaign worker who sought Sokolich’s endorsement.