HACKENSACK, N.J. (CN) – Finding probable cause that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie played a role in the Bridgegate scandal, a judge advanced a citizen’s attempt Thursday to have the Republican prosecuted.
Judge Roy McGeady’s ruling this morning relies on testimony from the 2016 trial of two former Christie allies who face prison time for their role in a politically orchestrated traffic jam that rocked the state three years earlier.
The scandal erupted in September 2013 when the closure of two lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge snarled traffic for a week in the neighboring Fort Lee.
Orders to close the lanes came from two Christie appointees to agency that runs the bridge, the Port Authority of New York and Jersey. Though initially passed off as a traffic study, evidence quickly began to mount that the true purpose for the lane closures was to exact political retribution against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who was not endorsing Christie’s re-election that fall.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Christie’s deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly wrote in the days ahead of the lane closures.
Jurors found that Kelly conspired on the lane closures with the Port Authority’s Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, but Christie maintains that he played no part.
Christie was never charged nor even called as a witness in the Bridgegate trial but remains tainted by the scandal in his last year in office as he fights a citizen’s complaint related to the case by Bill Brennan.
An activist, former firefighter and current gubernatorial candidate, Brennan has been pushing prosecutors to charge Christie based on evidence that the governor of misused his position to shut down the lanes.
Ruling from the bench today on whether Brennan’s case has probable cause, McGeady read substantial portions of Kelly and Wildstein’s testimony from the earlier trial.
In one famous exchange, Kelly texted that she was “smiling” at the thought of Fort Lee children stuck in traffic because of lane closures. Kelly sent the text to Wildstein in reply to forwarded message by Sokolich pleading for help, saying how "maddening" the lane closures had become.
McGeady also read from testimony in which Kelly and Wildstien said Christie was told about the plot while the lanes were still closed. Wildstein described Christie as “pleased” during a 9/11 memorial service when he learned about Sokolich’s unanswered cries for help.
“The court found it very puzzling that the governor of New Jersey would seem to be pleased with the fact that a mayor of a major city expressing concern about traffic jams in that city would go unanswered with seemingly the governor’s approval,” McGeady said.
“Governor Christie had control over at the very least Ms. Kelly … and seemingly control over Mr. Wildstein and Mr. Baroni,” the judge continued, noting the various testimony stating Christie knew about the true nature of the lane closures. “I’m satisfied that is probable cause.”
Christie spokesman Brian Murray blasted the McGeady after the hearing.
“The judge is violating the law, pure and simple,” Murray said. “This concocted claim was investigated for three months by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, which summarily dismissed it, after concluding that the very same evidence relied upon again by this judge was utter nonsense. That is exactly what it is. The law requires this judge to have done the same. This is a complete nonevent.”
Support for the ruling was widespread in the courtroom, however, where several individuals— some of whom were there awaiting their own legal hearings before McGeady — huffed and muttered statements like “piece of shit” regarding Christie.
After the judge finished reading his decision and adjourned, some of those same members clapped exuberantly. Several shook Brennan’s hand and congratulated him.
McGeady initially found probable cause this past October, when Brennan filed the case, but Judge Bonnie Mizdol overruled that decision last month. Noting that the court had not given Christie an opportunity to cross-examine Brennan, she sent the case back to be reheard.
Craig Carpenito, an attorney for Christie at the firm Alston Bird, has not appeared at the last two hearings to defend his client. He sent the court an email on Feb. 8 restating that he felt that Brennan’s case was a ”nullity” and should be dismissed outright.
Spokesman Murray complained Thursday that McGeady “has once again violated the governor's constitutional rights and intentionally ignored the earlier ruling by Assignment Judge Mizdol.”
Though Christie’s team contests Brennan’s standing to bring such a case, McGeady ruled this morning that private citizens can file charges related to “any offense,” and that the rules of evidence can be relaxed for private complaints.
Outside the courtroom, Brennan lamented what he calls the “corruption” of the Attorney General and the Bergen County prosecutors who have failed to take on the case.
“What the judge did today, he made it so simple even a prosecutor for the county of Bergen can understand that the governor is guilty,” Brennan said. “The problem is not that they don’t understand it, it’s that they are beholden to the governor.”
Brennan also called on “any grand jury member” in the state to summon him as a witness so that the case can move forward, even if prosecutors declined to take it on. Brennan said any current grand jury member in the state can issue an indictment without a prosecutor.
Quoting Bergen County prosecutors and the Office of Attorney General as stating that they would not prosecute the governor no matter what evidence was presented, Brennan filed a new motion Monday evening for the appointment of a special prosecutor in the case.
State officials have said they would decline to prosecute Christie based on the evidence from the Bridgegate trial.
McGeady rejected Brennan’s last demand for a special prosecutor, saying that Brennan had no right as a witness in the complaint to call for one.
McGeady scheduled another hearing in the case for March 10 at 1:30 p.m.Follow @NickRummell
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