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

Misconduct charges loom for Bridgegate defendants, but legal experts are split over possibility of RICO charges

george washington bridge

With subpoenaed documents trickling in to investigators and a third Christie appointee taking the Fifth Amendment, legal experts are debating which charges Christie appointees are likely to face, how evidence of a coverup could bolster a corruption prosecution, and whether a RICO conspiracy charge could be used to tie together the alleged Christie administration scandals.

From a legal standpoint, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s allegation that Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno transmitted a threat from Gov. Chris Christie to withhold Sandy aid from her city unless she pushed through a high-rise development represented by the law firm of David Samson, the governor’s former campaign counsel and current Port Authority chairman, is more serious than the Bridgegate allegations.

“The Bridgegate allegations could potentially be prosecuted under state law as official misconduct, but there are still a lot of dots to be connected for there to be serious liability under federal law,” said Christopher Adams, a Colts Neck lawyer who serves as vice president of the Criminal Defense Lawyers Association of New Jersey. “The Hoboken allegations are more serious. You heard nothing from the U.S. Attorney’s Office until Hoboken happened.

“Twenty-four hours after Zimmer made her allegation, members of the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI met with her in their office on a Sunday,” Adams said. “Sandy is an issue of criminal bribery. There could be a number of potential crimes, not the least of which could be extortion. The idea that the state would hold up the administration of federal funds unless the governor’s office could exact some benefit for itself or for a client of Samson is very serious. There were countless criminal indictments made on a lot less than that during Christie’s years as U.S. Attorney.”

That doesn’t mean Bridgegate isn’t serious, though, and politically it could be more damaging to Christie’s 2016 presidential hopes, as five Christie appointees subpoenaed in Bridgegate already have resigned or been fired. Based on evidence contained in emails subpoenaed by the Assembly Transportation Committee, legal experts agree that at least two former Christie appointees are already facing serious charges in Bridgegate.

Pleading the Fifth

While misconduct for political purposes is more difficult to prove than personal corruption, Bridget Kelly, Gov. Chris Christie’s former deputy chief of staff who evidently ordered the controversial George Washington Bridge lane closures, and David Wildstein, Christie’s political enforcer at the Port Authority who is openly angling for immunity, are likely to face misconduct or similar charges punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Both Wildstein and Kelly have invoked their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination, as has Bill Stepien, Christie’s former campaign manager.

Documents subpoenaed by the Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Investigations and/or the U.S. Attorney’s Office from the governor’s office, Christie’s reelection campaign, and 17 current and former Christie appointees could be critical, legal experts said, in establishing evidence of a coverup, which would constitute awareness of guilt and, therefore, bolster the strength of any corruption case.

The failure of state officials, especially lawyers, to report or stop cases of wrongdoing that reach the level of felony crimes -- which Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye believed to be the case with the secret closure of traffic lanes leading into the George Washington Bridge as an act of political retaliation -- could be prosecuted not only as official misconduct, but also under the seldom-used “misprision of felony” statute.

And while legal experts emphasize that it is too early to judge where U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman is heading, there has been some discussion that the combination of Bridgegate and its coverup, the withholding or award of federal Sandy aid for political purposes, the firing of a county prosecutor in order to squelch an indictment of a Republican county sheriff, and the misuse of power on behalf of politically connected lawyers and developers -- if proven -- could be tied together in a single case.

Sam Adam Jr., the Chicago defense attorney who defended impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, was the first to suggest publicly that if the underlying charges can be proved, a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) case could be made by the U.S. Attorney in New Jersey similar to the RICO charge brought against Blagojevich, his governor’s office, and his campaign fundraising operation. However, RICO cases are complex and difficult to prove.

Reid Schar, the former Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Blagojevich case -- who is currently serving as special counsel to the Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Investigations that issued subpoenas to Christie’s governor’s office, reelection campaign, and 15 Christie appointees -- dropped the racketeering charge against Blagojevich after the first jury convicted the governor only on a single count of lying to the FBI. Without the RICO charge, Schar’s streamlined case in the second trial brought convictions on 17 counts of conspiracy, attempted bribery, extortion and wire fraud.

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