First Witnesses Testify in Bridgegate Trial

Now to the federal trial over traffic troubles that paralyzed Fort Lee three years ago. Bridgegate prosecutors have called their first witnesses. Cameras are not allowed in federal court, but NJTV News Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron is. He spoke with Anchor Mary Alice Williams.

Williams: Michael, what happened?

Aron: Well me and about 25 other journalists are allowed in. And it was pretty basic today. There were two witnesses — the police chief of Fort Lee, Keith Bendul, and the mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich. The government is basically trying to recreate for the jury what happened during Bridgegate three years ago this month. They used maps and photos of Fort Lee and the entrance to the George Washington Bridge to orient the jurors to what happened when the two lanes were diverted, two of the three local access lanes were shut down to local traffic. They walked through the nuts and bolts of what happened that week. Chief Bendul said that the town had had great relations with the Port Authority, were always notified by the Port Authority when a resurfacing project on the bridge was going to take place or any event near the bridge was going to take place. But of course during the crucial week, they weren’t notified and the chief said that traffic was terrible. He said, “People couldn’t get out of their driveways, couldn’t move, couldn’t get around the city. There were confrontations between people all over town.” The defense tried to, in cross examining Bendul, downplay this gridlock and saying there’s always gridlock in Fort Lee. It sits in one of the most congested regions in the country. Mayor Sokolich, when he came to testify, painted a contrasting picture with that. He said this was not your garden variety gridlock. He said, “It was what I’d call concrete gridlock. … It was much, much, much worse than anything we’re accustomed to, and we’re accustomed to pretty bad traffic. This was traffic as bad as any I’ve ever seen.” And he testified about great relations he had with Bill Baroni, who’s on trial, at the Port Authority, with the Port Authority itself, with the governor’s office. Everything was great. The government played some voicemails that Sokolich left for Baroni during the crucial week, pleading with him to get back to him, getting ever more urgent. Didn’t get any reply all week long and testified, “It was incomprehensible to me that this was happening and that I didn’t know anything about it.” The trial will resume tomorrow. It left off during direct testimony of Sokolich. He’ll be cross examined tomorrow.

Williams: When Mayor Sokolich was testifying that he didn’t get back from Bill Baroni, could you see Baroni’s face? How was he reacting to this idea about radio silence?

Aron: I think Baroni was pretty stone-faced during that part of the testimony, but I did look at him at other times, particularly when people were talking about what good relations they had with him, I saw him nodding affirmatively. So I think he appreciated some of that testimony and I’m sure some of that sunk in on the jury.

Williams: It sounds like they’re just laying the groundwork for the jury who might not know about how it works normally.

Aron: We live with every hiccup of Bridgegate and know the chronology quite well. I think the jurors have all heard of Bridgegate, at least they indicated during jury selection, most of them. But they don’t know these details, so yes the government is laying quite a meticulous foundation.

Williams: Is it clear to you where the defense is going with this?

Aron: Not yet. They only cross examined the police chief today, but they’re on record as questioning whether this was just politics or really a federal crime exists. They’ve also said that the higher-ups are getting away with murder on this and it’s the little fish who are being scapegoated. So we’ll see how it plays out.

Williams: Michael Aron, thank you very much. We’ll hear more about this tomorrow.