PHILADELPHIA (CN) — A lawyer for several news organizations told the Third Circuit on Monday that a secret list of so-called unindicted co-conspirators in New Jersey’s Bridgegate scandal should be made public despite the objections of one person on it.
The list has caused speculation over which other potentially high-profile political officials may have had a hand in the 2013 shutdown of several lanes leading into the George Washington Bridge, in which one of Gov. Chris Christie’s aides has been charged.
U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton last month ordered the list to be made public, but a last-minute objection by a John Doe — one of the co-conspirators — sent the decision to the Third Circuit.
A three-judge panel comprised of judges Thomas Ambro, Kent Jordan, and Anthony Scirica, heard today’s argument.
The decision to unseal the list now rests on whether the panel determines the list a “bill of particulars.”
Bruce Rosen, the attorney representing the media companies seeking access to the lists, argued it is a bill of particulars because “if it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, it’s a duck.”
Bills of particulars generally are provided at the request of defense counsel and specify charges against individuals.
Rosen said the list was in the public’s interest because of the nature of the Bridgegate scandal, which has been national news.
“This is a very public issue, and these people [the unindicted co-conspirators] are not private people,” he said during the hearing.
In her opinion making the list public, Wigenton referred to the list as a bill of particulars. Prosecutors in the case had not officially labeled it as such when they had provided it to defense counsel, but today they said it was a discovery document, and not open to public record.
U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, who is prosecuting the Bridgegate case, argued that as a discovery document, the public had no right to the list because it would put them “in the tent” of how the government decides who to indict.
“That would be a very bad thing for how we do business as a justice department,” Fishman said.
Fishman’s office sought a seal when it provided the letter in January, but it did not docket a separate, formal motion.
After the media’s request to unseal the list drew an appeal to the Third Circuit from Doe, Fishman’s office joined the effort to keep the names secret.
U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro noted at today’s hearing that the government was “bootstrapping onto Doe’s argument,” and should have appealed the media’s request to unseal the list.
U.S. Circuit Judge Kent Jordan also questioned why the government had not appealed when Wigenton referred to the list as a “bill of particulars” in her order unsealing it.
“We could and should have been clearer,” Fishman admitted during the hearing.
Doe’s attorney, Jenny Kramer, wrote in a filing that the list of unindicted co-conspirators was merely a discovery letter not subject to First Amendment rights, and that Doe would be “branded” as a criminal if his name was associated with the Bridgegate scandal.
Kramer also objected to releasing the list without Doe’s name on it, saying the public would be able to deduce the identity of her client. Releasing even the redacted list would “narrow that universe of people” and almost ensure revealing Doe’s identity, she argued.
The Bridgegate scandal stems from a five-day shutdown of several lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge that snarled traffic for hours. Bridget Anne Kelly and William Baroni Jr. were charged with conspiracy and fraud for their alleged roles in shutting down the lanes as political payback to Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, who had declined to endorse Gov. Chris Christie in his re-election bid for governor.
Kelly had served as deputy chief of staff for Christie, and Baroni was deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Another Port Authority official, David Wildstein, has pleaded guilty for his role in the shutdown.
The list of unindicted co-conspirators came to light in January after a legal documents was shared among attorneys in the case. Media outlets including North Jersey Media Group, the Associated Press, Wall Street Journal and NBCUniversal filed the suit to unseal the list.
Christie has said he doesn’t believe he is one of the co-conspirators on the list. “I don’t believe [I am on the list], but I guess no one knows until they actually put the list out,” the governor said last month.
Prosecutors in the case supposedly have multiple lists of people associated with the case, but who have not been charged.
Attorney Michael Baldassari, who represents Baroni in the case, told reporters after the hearing that prosecutors “have another thing coming” if they show up with a second list of unindicted co-conspirators during trial. “That’s not going to happen,” he said.
The Third Circuit is expected to rule on whether to make the list of co-conspirators public later this week.
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