TRENTON, N.J. (CN) – New Jersey newspapers will have another crack at forcing lame duck Gov. Chris Christie to turn over emails related to Bridgegate, a state appeals court ruled Thursday.
In the underlying lawsuits, media outlets sought internal communications between staffers in Christie’s office related to the 2013 lane shutdown on the George Washington Bridge, which had snarled traffic in nearby Fort Lee for four days.
Journalists lost both legal challenges in 2014 when the trial court ruled that government lawyers and a Christie spokesman certified that the sought-after records did not exist.
However, the state appeals court ruled Thursday that those certifications may not have been completely accurate, kicking the case back to the trial court to decide whether the administration has to dig up and turn over the requested records.
The so-called Bridgegate scandal broke after emails and texts between Christie appointees to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and a senior Christie staffer indicated the lane shutdowns were designed as political payback against Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor, who had refused to endorse the Republican governor’s re-election campaign.
The most infamous of those emails showed Christie staffer Bridget Kelly writing to Port Authority appointee David Wildstein in August 2013 that it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Shortly after that revelation, newspapers and other media outlets sought emails, texts, and other communications about the lane shutdown between high-level administration members – including senior counsel Kevin O’Dowd, spokesman Michael Drewniak and Christie himself – and two political appointees to the Port Authority.
Christie’s office told the media outlets that it had reviewed its records and that it had not found any related emails.
The law firm Gibson Dunn, which represented the governor’s office, later certified that it had not found any relevant emails.
However, after the initial open-records requests were filed, reporters obtained emails between Wildstein, a Christie appointee to the Port Authority, and two Christie senior staffers discussing Bridgegate.
The judge hearing the open-records case denied the media outlets’ amended requests for civil penalties against the administration for failing to turn over the relevant records, finding that the Gibson Dunn certification was legitimate and that it lacked the authority to issue penalties.
The court dismissed the two complaints.
However, the certification by attorney Alexander Southwell was incomplete, the New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division ruled Thursday, because it relied on a third-party vendor that found only four related documents.
“Southwell’s description of the search is not based on his personal knowledge, nor could it have been, as it was conducted by an unidentified third-party vendor and, at times, unidentified attorneys at his firm,” Judge Francis Vernoia wrote in the 36-page opinion.
As a result, the open-records complaints should not have been dismissed, Vernoia wrote, noting “there was insufficient credible evidence supporting the court’s finding that [the] search for records was reasonable.”
In a footnote in the opinion, Vernoia stopped short of stating whether the records should be turned over, saying the trial court must answer that question.
Attorney Samuel Samaro of the law firm Pashman Stein Walder Hayden, who represented the journalists in the case, did not immediately return calls seeking comment Thursday.
Christie spokesman Brian Murray did not return an email seeking comment.
The administration emails are not the only documents media outlets have sought related to Bridgegate. In 2015, a group of outlets including the Bergen Record, Associated Press, and Wall Street Journal sought a secret list of co-conspirators in the lane shutdown, which was brought to light in 2016 after its mention in a legal document.
U.S. District Court Judge Susan Wigenton, who presided over the Bridgegate trial last fall, ordered the names released.
However, an emergency motion by an unnamed man on the list, known only as John Doe in court records, led the Third Circuit to overrule Wigenton, citing privacy concerns about people on the list.
The lane shutdown scandal, which came to be known as Bridgegate, culminated earlier this year when Kelly and Port Authority appointee Bill Baroni were sentenced for their roles in the four-day lane shutdown.
Kelly, who served as Christie’s deputy chief of staff, received 18 months in prison. Baroni, who was sentenced to two years in prison, was Christie’s top appointee to the Port Authority. Both have appealed their sentences.
Last month, Wildstein, who also served as prosecutors’ star witness, was sentenced to probation for his role in coming up with the idea for the lane shutdown.
Christie has never been charged in the scheme, but both Wildstein and Kelly testified during the trial that the governor blessed it personally weeks before it happened.