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

The legislative committee, whose counsel Schar met with U.S. Attorney Fishman Saturday to discuss how the legislative inquiry could proceed without interfering with the federal investigation, is expected to challenge Kelly’s and Stepien’s right to withhold documentary evidence, even if they refuse to answer questions when called to testify.

Proving a connection in the planning and execution of Bridgegate between Stepien, who served as Christie’s political enforcer within the administration before moving over to the campaign, and his protégé Kelly, who replaced him as deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, would be the critical link in tying both the governor’s office and the campaign to the George Washington Bridge lane closures.

Christie said he removed Stepien from his consulting position with the Republican Governors Association and his planned chairmanship of the New Jersey Republican Party for the “callous indifference” he showed to the Bridgegate lane closures in after-the-fact emails to Wildstein. But Christie did not fire his press secretary, Michael Drewniak, for profanity-laced emails that were worse than Stepien’s, leading political insiders to question privately whether Christie suspected Stepien had a hand in Kelly’s Bridgegate directive -- yet another reason for Christie not to question Stepien or Kelly before firing them so he would not have to know.

Establishing the motive for the secret George Washington Bridge lane closures is critical because “unlike typical corruption cases, it’s not clear with Bridgegate that there was any money passing hands,” said Aidan O’Connor, who served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for 18 years, including the Christie years, before joining PashmanStein in Hackensack.

Turning a Profit

Most state laws covering bribery, extortion, and official misconduct are written primarily to prohibit public officials from personally profiting or helping friends or family members to profit from decisions they make in their official duties, rather than from the misuse of their governmental position to advance their political aims or those of the leaders they serve.

If the bridge lanes were closed and traffic was snarled for four days in Fort Lee as retaliation against Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich for refusing to endorse Christie for reelection, prosecutors would have to get the jury to “buy into the idea that political advancement and maintaining political position has a real tangible value,” O’Connor said.

“Do people say this is politics as usual or does it cross the line?” he said. “You have to look at it as a prosecutor would. Is this something as a society we don’t want? The general intent of the law is to go after corrupt behavior. You have to ask whether this crosses the line from hardball politics to misuse of state power. You would have to say this is not typical hardball politics, but misusing the levels of the state to maintain power.”

Similarly, while Zimmer’s allegations that Lt. Governor Guadagno threatened to hold up Sandy aid if she did not support a politically connected high-rise are more serious, the same question is involved, said Michael J. Sullivan, a former federal public defender who is now a partner with Coughlin Duffy in Morristown.

“Clearly, conditioning the payment of federal aid that is otherwise appropriately due and owing, and conditioning it on some other action is improper and illegal,” Sullivan said. “On the other hand, there is a certain amount of horse trading allowed in politics.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office is going to want corroborating evidence before bringing a “she said, she said” case simply pitting Zimmer’s word against Guadagno’s, the lawyers agreed.

Blurring the Lines

The problem of the blurring of the line between governmental and political activity is not unique to New Jersey. Kelly and other officials switched from their governmental email to their personal email when they were exchanging political communications, including those pertaining to Bridgegate. But Adams, the Colts Neck defense attorney, noted that “Karl Rove carried two blackberries. One was his official government one, the other was his political one,” and that was while he was on the White House payroll as President George W. Bush’s in-house political operative -- a position similar to the one Stepien filled as Christie’s deputy chief of staff between the 2009 and 2013 campaigns.

However, New Jersey laws and ethics statutes clearly bar government officials from doing political business on work time -- which is why Stepien left the governor’s office to work on the campaign.

O’Connor noted that the misallocation of federal money, particularly in amounts totally more than $10,000, is illegal. That is important because the Port Authority, whose allocation of funding to projects favored by the Christie administration, receives sizable amounts of federal money, and because federal Sandy aid played a central role in both the Hoboken case and the controversial construction of a senior citizen center in Belleville, which suffered little Sandy damage, as an alleged inducement to the mayor to endorse Christie for reelection.

If Sandy money was misallocated for political purposes, the check itself would constitute evidence of federal wire fraud, O’Connor said, as would any improper orders communicated by telephone. Almost half of Blagojevich’s conviction counts were for wire fraud.

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