- Media outlets push for disclosure of co-conspirator list
- Ex-Christie allies face September trial in lane closing case
A judge ordered the release of the names of the uncharged accomplices in the George Washington Bridge scandal that has led to criminal charges against three former allies of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
The ruling came Tuesday in a case involving Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni, who face trial in September on charges that they deliberately created traffic jams by closing lanes near the bridge to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, for failing to back Christie’s re-election in 2013.
Federal prosecutors secretly identified the co-conspirators to U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton and asked that the names remain confidential. Numerous media organizations petitioned the court to release the names, which have been a mystery since May 2015, when prosecutors announced the indictment of the two former Christie allies and a third pleaded guilty.
Christie wasn’t charged in the scandal, which was a drag on his failed Republican bid for the White House. The judge’s order thrust the scandal back into the public eye a day after presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump said Christie would lead his transition team if he’s elected. Christie endorsed the New York real estate mogul two weeks after abandoning his own campaign in February.
“The underlying events that gave rise to the indictment have been extensively covered by the media, such that even persons tangentially involved have already been identified and exposed in the press,” Wigenton ruled in federal court in Newark, New Jersey. “There is very little that is private about the lane closures or the lives of the people allegedly connected to them.”
Several media organizations moved in January to intervene in the case, seeking access to documents filed under seal, including the list of co-conspirators. The publishers and owners of the Record, Bloomberg News, WNBC-TV, the New York Times, nj.com, the Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, NJTV and New York Public Radio filed the request.
Those people identified as having a role in the lane closings have been “public employees and/or elected and appointed officials, and anyone named in the conspirator letter is likely to have held a similar position,” the judge ruled. While the privacy of third parties is important, “the privacy interests of uncharged third parties are insufficiently compelling to outweigh the public’s right of access,” she said.
An attorney representing the media, Bruce Rosen, said his clients are pleased with the ruling and hope that U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman won’t appeal. Rather, they hope that Fishman “will heed Judge Wigenton’s findings and agree that the public’s right of access to this list will prevail,” Rosen said in a statement. He sent a letter Tuesday to the judge asking that the list of names be released immediately.
Prosecutors alleged in a nine-count indictment that Kelly and Baroni misappropriated resources of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which owns the bridge. They are also accused of defrauding the Port Authority of property rights and depriving the people of Fort Lee of their civil rights to travel without unreasonable government restriction.
Wigenton is considering requests by Kelly and Baroni to dismiss the indictment on several grounds, including that prosecutors twisted the law to find a crime to fit the facts.
Randy Mastro, an attorney who has represented Christie’s office, said in a phone interview that he hadn’t seen the order and declined to comment.
The cases are New Jersey Media Group v. U.S., 16-cv-267, U.S. District Court, District Court of New Jersey (Newark), and U.S. v. Baroni, 15-cr-00193, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Newark).