One controversy seemed to be drawing to a close yesterday when another one seemed to begin, as prosecutors’ final day of grilling in the federal Bridgegate trial was overshadowed by a municipal judge’s ruling in favor of a criminal complaint against the man allegedly at the center of the scandal: Gov. Chris Christie.
Bergen County Judge Roy McGeady agreed yesterday to allow a complaint of official misconduct against the governor to move forward, saying there was enough probable cause to implicate Christie in the politically-motivated scheme that shut down commuter lanes and snarled traffic at the mouth of the George Washington Bridge in 2013. There was enough evidence, he said, to issue a summons to the two-term Republican.
Brought by former Teaneck firefighter and political activist Bill Brennan, the complaint alleges that Christie knew of the closures and was in a position to stop them while they were happening. That’s the same allegation David Wildstein, the former Port Authority executive and Christie confidant who pled guilty to charges for his role in Bridgegate, has been making in court over the past three weeks as the primary witness in the federal investigation into the scandal.
Indeed, Brennan said he based his complaint on Wildstein’s testimony during the trial, which reached its halfway point yesterday as state prosecutors finished presenting their case in a Newark courtroom.
The news that Brennan’s complaint was being allowed to go forward was met with immediate condemnation from Christie’s office, which called it a “dishonorable complaint” filed by a “known serial complainant and political activist with a history of abusing the judicial system.” Christie has repeatedly denied accusations that he was in any way involved in the lane closings, even in the face of mounting allegations.
“The simple fact is the governor had no knowledge of the lane realignments either before they happened or while they were happening,” said Brian Murray, a Christie spokesperson. “This matter has already been thoroughly investigated by three separate independent investigations. The ruling is being appealed immediately.”
Democrats in the Legislature were more willing to accept the ruling, however. At an unrelated press conference in the State House, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said they were curious to see how the complaint would play out, but noted the federal investigation was still ongoing.
“We’re still in the middle of those investigations, particularly the trial, which still has three, four weeks before it comes to its conclusion. It’s interesting to me what happened this morning, but we have this great justice system,” Weinberg said. She added, “Anyone can go into a court and file a complaint, and that’s what happened. And now we will see how that moves through the court in Bergen County.”
From the municipal court judge, the case now goes to the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, which would decide whether to bring an indictment against Christie. But that prosecutor, Gurbir Grewal, is a Christie appointee, and his nomination has not yet been approved by the Senate.
McGeady said yesterday that Grewal would likely recuse himself, and both Sweeney and Weinberg agreed it was an open question. Sweeney said he’d like to get a hearing for Grewal “as soon as possible.”
“The municipal court is not bound by what’s going on in the federal case,” Sweeney said. “The laws are different. This is a state statute that he’s alleging there’s cause for. For us, we want to get the Bergen County prosecutor hopefully confirmed. He has to have a hearing as soon as possible so that he’ll be in a position of independence when he decides where and what to do with this”
Asked what he makes of allegations levied in the federal trial by Wildstein, namely that during a 9/11 memorial service in New York City Christie was told of the lane shutdowns while they happened, Sweeney demurred, saying it’s up to the grand jury to decide the credibility of the claims.
“I’m not going to make anything of it, because you have the defense attorneys saying Wildstein is a liar,” Sweeney said. “I’m not jumping into it, there’s a jury, and the jury will make that decision.”
Weinberg, who represents Bergen County, where the lane closures took place, noted the trial has brought to light details about the scandal that the legislative committee she co-chaired, the Select Committee on Investigations, wasn’t able to get out of those individuals when it called them to testify under oath. She said that might be grounds to reconvene the panel, tasked with looking into allegations of misconduct when the controversy first began, and bring back those who were not “exactly forthcoming” the first time around.
Those who were called to testify before the SCI in 2014 included Wildstein, former incoming Chief of Staff Regina Egea, former Christie spokesman Mike Drewniak, and former deputy executive director at the Port Authority Bill Baroni, who has also been charged in the federal case.
The other former Christie staff member charged in the trial, deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly, pled the 5th amendment when subpoenaed by the committee.
“There were texts apparently they never told us about, there were meetings they never offered, so I think at the end of the trial, we need to look at those people who appeared under oath, and go back talk to them, because I think we need to prove the point in the future, too, that when the legislature sends out a subpoena, they need to respond,” Weinberg said.
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