HACKENSACK, N.J. (CN) – A New Jersey judge refused Friday to appoint a special prosecutor for an investigation of Gov. Chris Christie’s role in a politically orchestrated traffic jam that has already snared three convictions.
The ruling in the long-running Bridgegate saga stems from a lawsuit courtesy of Bill Brennan, a community activist and retired firefighter who filed a criminal complaint against the governor back in October.
Though the development does not clear Christie, it says Brennan cannot call for the disqualification of state and county prosecutors leading the case.
“This court is mindful of the heightened concern for conflict when a governor is facing criminal prosecution by the very state he is tasked to govern,” Judge Bonnie Mizdol wrote of Brennan. “However, this court is duty-bound to uphold our constitution, statutes, case law and court rule; none of which convey standing upon Brennan.”
Brennan vowed to fight on, calling the ruling out in a statement as “an act of judicial cowardice.”
The 8-page opinion from Bergen County Superior Court says Brennan, as a civilian complainant, “has no right pursuant to our constitution, statutes, case law, court rules, to prosecute criminal charges.”
“That role is exclusively restricted to prosecutors as defined in our court rules,” Mizdol wrote.
Brennan brought the case midway through the federal trial of two former Christie allies accused of conspiring to exact political retribution in September 2013 against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich.
On Sept. 9, 2013, shortly after the Democrat earned a seat on the governor’s hands-off list for declining to endorse Christie’s re-election, Fort Lee lost two of its three dedicated lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge – one of the busiest spans in the world connecting New Jersey and New York City.
Commuters, emergency vehicles and school buses alike were marooned in hours of gridlock traffic during the ensuing four days of lane closures.
The chief mastermind of the plot was David Wildstein, who earned a reputation as Christie’s enforcer at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a public agency that runs the bridge.
After pleading guilty, Wildstein testified against co-conspirators Bill Baroni and Bridget Ann Kelly in a blockbuster trial that capped off last month with convictions on all counts.
Brennan’s complaint highlighted evidence from the trial to argue that Christie could have reopened the lanes as early as Sept. 11, but refrained from doing so.
The timeline speaks to photographs shown to the jury of Christie in a jolly huddle during a tour of a 9/11 memorial with two of the men indicted for the bridge plot.
It was not until Sept. 13 that an New York-appointed Port Authority official reopened the lanes by executive order.
Wildstein told the court that the 9/11 memorial photo showed Christie learning about Fort Lee’s traffic problems. He said Christie was pleased.
Baroni and Kelly’s trial shone a light on many people at practices at the Port Authority that have come under much scrutiny, and Christie was one of several uncharged individuals to be implicated in the plot by witness testimony. Wildstein told the court that a 9/11 memorial photo taken of Christie learning about Fort Lee’s traffic problems showed that the governor was “pleased” about the situation.
Prosecution of the lane closures is widely credited with killing Christie’s ambitions for national office.
Though Christie was one of the first in the Republican mainstream to endorse the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, the president-elect jettisoned Christie from his transition committee shortly after winning the election.
A former state attorney general, Christie will close out his second term as governor in 2017. Brennan claimed that “any county prosecutor presents an incurable conflict” in bringing a case against the governor.
To avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, both New Jersey Attorney General Christopher Porrino and Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir Grewal have already recused themselves from work on the case.
Friday’s ruling came just two days after Christie was a no-show for the hearing on Brennan’s demands.
Christie’s attorney, Craig Carpenito of Alston & Bird, was quoted as saying “a citizen complainant’s role in the case ends at the conclusion of the probable cause hearing.”
Back in October, that probable cause hearing ended with issuance of a criminal summons against Christie, and laying the groundwork for prosecutors to convene a grand jury.
Christie was initially slated for an Oct. 24 court appearance in the Brennan case, but the court later agreed to delay proceedings until after theg general election.
What was to be a Thanksgiving Eve hearing is now slated for Jan. 11. Christie is weathering near-record low approval ratings, but the governor insists he plans to finish out his term.