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Analysis: U.S. Attorney’s Trail Shows Hoboken Charges More Serious

Robert Del Tufo, the former U.S. Attorney and New Jersey Attorney-General, touched off a debate on MSNBC last month with his suggestion that the Christie team could eventually face RICO charges. But he backed off that conclusion as premature in an interview yesterday, saying he did not want to prejudge Fishman’s investigation and praising the U.S. Attorney for “going about this in a very professional way. You don’t have to stand up and crow about what you’re doing.”

In fact, reporters only learned that Fishman had recently issued a subpoena to the governor’s office because Christie disclosed it during his Monday night interview on New Jersey 101.5 FM.

Del Tufo marveled at the breadth of the allegations of corruption, conflict of interest, and coverup involving an interrelated cast of Christie appointees and allies that have emerged in the month since the January 8 bombshell disclosure of Kelly’s email telling Wildstein it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

“This may be much broader than we think,” Del Tufo said. He pointed to allegations that Kelly in the governor’s office directed the Port Authority’s Wildstein to close the bridge lanes, that Port Authority Chairman David Samson tried to intervene to block the public disclosure of the story behind the lane closures, and that Port Authority money went into a study that recommended a development in Hoboken that Samson’s law firm represented -- and that the Christie administration allegedly pressured Zimmer to support.

The alleged threat to withhold federal Sandy aid from Hoboken if Zimmer refused is the flip side of the allegation that Christie pushed through Sandy funding for a senior citizen complex in Belleville, which had no Sandy damage, to encourage Belleville’s Democratic mayor to endorse him for reelection.

Del Tufo said he was particularly troubled by the allegations made by former Hunterdon County Prosecutor Ben Barlyn in a civil lawsuit currently working its way through state Superior Court. Barlyn charges that Christie’s former Attorney General, Paula Dow, took over his office in 2010 and improperly fired him and his assistants to squelch a corruption case against Hunterdon County Sheriff Deborah Trout, a Christie GOP ally, that four jurors testified was proper.

“Clearly, there’s something wrong here. The charges in all of these cases involve abuses of power, generally for political purposes,” Del Tufo said.

Del Tufo noted that public officials could be found guilty of violating the Hobbs Act of 1951 – which, like RICO, was originally enacted to crack down on labor racketeers -- for obtaining a payment or benefit to which they were not entitled. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Hobbs Act’s “under color of official right provision does not require that the public official take steps to induce the extortionate payment: It can be said that ‘the coercive element is provided by the public office itself’” -- in this case, the perceived power of the governor’s office.

Out in the Open

While the U.S. Attorney’s investigation, which would go to a grand jury before charges are made public, could build slowly for months behind closed doors, the Legislature’s Special Committee on Investigations will be bringing its witnesses in to testify publicly.

The panel, chaired by Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), is focusing first on Bridgegate, but its broad charter allows it to branch out to investigate any abuses of power or the coverup of those abuses, by the Christie administration, as the far-reaching subpoenas it issued in mid-January demonstrated.

The U.S. Attorney’s investigation and the Legislature’s inquiry could very well extend into 2015, based on the experience of the Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Whitewater investigations in Washington and the Blagojevich case which ran for three years from hearings and investigations to impeachment to trials. “There is nothing comparable in scope in modern New Jersey history,” said Robert F. Williams, Associate Director of Rutgers-Camden Law School’s Center for Constitutional Studies.

New Jersey’s Bridgegate saga and other alleged Christie administration scandals could play out differently than the federal cases because the New Jersey Legislature does not have the powers Congress has to grant immunity to witnesses, legal experts noted.

That is why Kelly and Stepien not only indicated they would follow Wildstein’s example in taking the Fifth Amendment when called to testify before the Wisniewski-Weinberg committee, but also cited both their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and their Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure in refusing to produce documents, emails, and other materials demanded by the committee because they could be used by the U.S. Attorney’s Office to build a case against them.

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