New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s aides and appointees who created traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge, perhaps as political payback, could face cover-up charges even if the tie-up itself didn’t break any laws, former federal prosecutors said.
New Jersey U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said Jan. 9 that he has opened an investigation into the lane shutdowns that caused traffic snarls at the bridge’s western approaches in Fort Lee from Sept. 9 to Sept. 13.
The Republican governor, who may run for president, apologized Jan. 9 and fired Bridget Anne Kelly, an aide who helped orchestrate the shutdowns. Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, has suggested the closings, which clogged up traffic for hours, were political revenge for his decision not to back Christie’s re-election last year.
Christie, 51, said Kelly lied to him when he asked senior aides a month ago whether they knew about the lane closings. E-mails and text messages released this week show that Kelly and Christie appointees at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the operator of the bridge, directed the tie-ups.
U.S. or state prosecutors may build a cover-up case, rather than one based on the traffic tie-ups themselves, said Stephen Ryan, a former federal prosecutor now at McDermott Will & Emory in Washington.
“The classic way that people get prosecuted for a matter like this is because they lied to federal or state investigators, or a legislative body,” Ryan said. “The most likely crime is a false statement to a government investigator, and that’s what would be prosecuted, as opposed to the underlying perverse act of messing with bridge traffic.”
The former Port Authority official who ordered the lane shutdowns, David Wildstein, appeared Jan. 9 before the state Assembly transportation committee, where he refused to answer questions, citing his constitutional right against self-incrimination.
One avenue for prosecution could also be false statements mailed to a government agency, Ryan said. Still, given the publicly available information, no case seems strong, he said.
“The facts haven’t been printed in a newspaper yet that clearly indicate a crime was committed,” Ryan said.
Federal prosecutors may examine whether the obstruction of interstate commerce on the bridge between New Jersey and New York violated the law, said Robert Del Tufo, a former U.S. attorney in New Jersey and attorney general for the state.
“I’m sure there are some kinds of criminal or regulatory problems that would involve obstructing interstate commerce,” said Del Tufo, now at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP. “There might be possibilities of obstruction of justice because there were different stories told in the beginning and documents were withheld.”
Prosecutors may have a hard time finding an economic benefit, often a staple of public-corruption cases, said Barry Pollack, a lawyer at Miller & Chevalier.
“This isn’t a case about theft or bribery, it’s not about any economic motive,” Pollack said. “It is purely politically motivated. I think it’s a real stretch to say you have stolen government funds because you act in a way that is motivated by a desire to exact political revenge.”
Fishman’s office could potentially make a civil rights case that motorists were deprived of their right to interstate travel, said Andrew Lourie, a former federal prosecutor in New Jersey. Such a case, while possible, would be far-fetched, said Lourie, now at Kobre & Kim LLP in Washington.
“They didn’t really deprive anyone of their right to interstate travel -- they just slowed it down,” Lourie said. “There may be something very easy under state law that prevents the need to torture federal law. My guess is there’s a state level misdemeanor or even felony misconduct.”
Any of the people involved in the bridge shutdown could face civil litigation, lawyers said.
Kelly, the governor’s aide, sent a message on Aug. 13 to Wildstein, a Christie appointee at the Port Authority, that it was “time for some traffic problems.” Weeks later, when the lanes were shut down, officials of the Port Authority said the closings were for a traffic study.
Kelly couldn’t be reached for comment. A phone number listed for her in Ramsey, New Jersey, was out of service yesterday.
In a news conference Jan. 9, Christie described Kelly’s conduct as “stupid” and “deceitful.”
“I have not had any conversation with Bridget Kelly since the e-mail came out,” Christie told reporters Jan. 9. “She was not given the opportunity to explain to me why she lied because it was so obvious that she had.”
Christie said he was “heartbroken” when he fired her.
“I trusted that I was being told the truth, and I wasn’t,” Christie said. “And I wasn’t by somebody who I placed a significant amount of trust in.”