Thursday, January 16, 2014
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The George Washington Bridge traffic jam that was apparently engineered by allies of Gov. Chris Christie as political payback could lead to criminal charges such as conspiracy or official misconduct, legal experts say.
Also, those involved in the lane closings could be charged with perjury or obstruction if they lied to or misled investigators or if they produced documents after the fact that were designed to thwart an investigation.
"To me, the most plausible course for a federal criminal investigation would be to see if there's any cover-up," said Rutgers University law professor Stuart Green, adding that under the law, the conduct being covered up does not have to be criminal in itself.
Federal prosecutors and both houses of the state Legislature are investigating the scandal, which broke wide open last week with the release of emails and text messages suggesting that a top Christie aide ordered the lane closings in mid-September to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, who did not endorse the Republican governor for re-election.
Fort Lee officials and others complained that the four days of gridlock at the busiest bridge in the world delayed emergency vehicles, school buses and countless commuters and put people's lives in danger.
On Wednesday, a former federal prosecutor who helped convict former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich of corruption, Reid Schar, was tapped to investigate the scandal for the state Assembly.
"A potential misuse of taxpayer resources for political purposes is a serious matter that requires an astute legal eye with experience in this realm to help guide the process," said Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, a Democrat.
While the furor could haunt Christie's expected run for president in 2016, there has been no evidence he had a role in the closings. But those who were involved could face conspiracy charges, according to Fordham University law professor Jim Cohen, who teaches a course in law and responsibility.
"The easiest criminal issue is conspiracy, and this was clearly a conspiracy among several people to accomplish an illegal purpose — the shutdown of the roadways not in accordance with whatever rules govern shutting down the roadways," Cohen said. "And conspiracy is often breathtakingly easy to prove."
New Jersey's law on official misconduct could also be invoked, though Green said he couldn't remember it being applied in a case like this. The statute prohibits public servants from benefiting or from depriving another of a benefit through the "unauthorized exercise" of their official duties.
That statute could be applied to the bridge scandal, Green said, except that the law is usually employed in cases in which there was some kind of tangible benefit, such as money.
"This case is different because even though there was a clear abuse of power, there's no evidence of anyone profiting materially from it," Green said.
At the federal level, a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that narrowed the definition of a type of official misconduct, known as theft of honest services, could preclude the use of that law in the New Jersey scandal. The ruling, in the case of former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, held that theft of honest services applies only in cases involving bribes and kickbacks.
New Jersey officials claimed in recent months that the lane closings were part of a traffic study, and last week studies of the gridlock, complete with pictures, graphs and calculations of wait times and lost toll revenue, were made public by lawmakers investigating the scandal.
But an obstruction charge could be brought if it turns out the studies were ordered up in an elaborate attempt to conceal an act of political retribution.
Among the documents in the case is an August email from Bridget Kelly, Christie's deputy chief of staff, to David Wildstein, a Christie ally at the Port Authority of New York and Jersey, which operates the bridge. Kelly wrote: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."
"Got it," Wildstein replied.
As the scandal unfolded, Wildstein resigned last month, as did former Port Authority deputy executive director Bill Baroni, a Christie appointee. Christie fired Kelly last week.
Through a spokeswoman, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman declined to comment Wednesday on his office's review of the case.
Wildstein has invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, his attorney Alan Zegas said. A message left with a lawyer for Baroni wasn't immediately returned, and it was unknown if Kelly had retained an attorney.
As for other legal repercussions, civil action is already underway: At least two lawsuits have been filed, one in state court by several livery car companies and three individuals, the other in federal court by several New Jersey residents.
Both accuse New Jersey officials of illegal activity in creating the traffic jams and seek unspecified damages.