on December 11, 2013 at 9:00 AM
The first time Bill Baroni spoke to lawmakers about the George Washington Bridge brouhaha, it was a laugher. That was just two weeks ago, when Baroni, deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, blamed a secret "traffic study" for traffic jams that crippled Fort Lee in September.
Now that his cover story is starting to unravel, legislators should subpoena Baroni to testify again — this time under oath, with the threat of perjury hanging over his head.
Baroni wants us to believe the Port Authority was studying the bridge’s traffic patterns when it blockaded two-thirds of Fort Lee’s entry lanes, sparking three days of gridlock starting Sept. 9. The agency, he testified, wanted to measure the effect of the Fort Lee shutdown on other bridge traffic. (Hint: It moves faster.)
New Jersey lawmakers, led by Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) and Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), aren’t buying it. And with good reason: Nobody involved with George Washington Bridge’s operations knew anything about Baroni’s phantom "study."
That includes Patrick Foye, Baroni’s boss and the Port Authority’s top executive, who was subpoenaed to Trenton on Monday and testified, under oath, that he wasn’t told about the clandestine study, either. When he learned about it from reporters, he demanded the lanes be reopened.
The widely held suspicion is that Baroni and David Wildstein, the PA’s director of interstate capital projects, ordered the traffic squeeze to punish Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, for refusing to endorse Gov. Chris Christie’s re-election.
It’s the possibility of a Christie link — Baroni and Wildstein are Christie appointees — that’s fueling speculation. And Baroni’s flimsy excuses, coupled with Wildstein’s abrupt resignation announcement last week, only add to the believability.
After Monday’s hearings, Wisniewski called for Baroni to resign from the Port Authority or be fired. That’s jumping the gun.
Now that Foye has testified, Baroni and Wildstein should get subpoenas, too. The goal should be to find out what happened on the bridge, with an eye toward any communication with the governor’s office. Full disclosure is a top priority.
Time is a factor. The Assembly transportation committee’s subpoena power expires when the current legislative session ends on Jan. 13. After that, the Assembly must vote to restore it.
Christie has denied a role in the bridge fiasco, dismissing reporters’ questions with jokes and chiding Democrats for investigating. But this is more than political theater. The amateurish shutdown put people at risk. What if firetrucks or ambulances were stuck in the gridlock? Even Foye called the closure "dangerous" and "outrageous."
It’s past time for jokes and fairy tales. What’s needed, finally, are truthful answers. Let’s hope the threat of perjury charges shakes loose some official honesty.