- U.S. appeals court grants request by ‘John Doe’ for a stay
- List of co-conspirators had been set for release on Tuesday
A group of people who joined a plot to snarl traffic at the George Washington Bridge but weren’t charged get to keep their identities secret at least until next month.
The drama over a list of uncharged co-conspirators continued Tuesday, when an appeals court temporarily blocked the release of names just two hours before they were due to be made public. Prosecutors say the people plotted to gridlock traffic near the bridge in 2013. Three former allies of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were charged with creating those traffic jams to punish a local mayor who didn’t back his re-election.
The appellate court agreed to hear arguments on June 6 in Philadelphia from a John Doe who claims that release of his name would brand him a criminal without a chance to dispute the allegation. The court hasn’t decided whether the hearing will be open to the public.
A federal judge in Newark last week ordered the release of the names at the request of media organizations, including Bloomberg News, saying the right of public access trumped the privacy concerns of those on the list. The judge had initially set a May 13 deadline for the disclosure, but extended it to noon on Tuesday so John Doe could appeal.
The identities of the co-conspirators have been a political mystery since May 2015, when prosecutors announced the indictment of the two former Christie allies, Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni. A third defendant, former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey executive David Wildstein, pleaded guilty.
Prosecutors gave the list to lawyers for Kelly and Baroni in January. They also gave it to U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton, asking that the names remain confidential. After the media request to release the list, New Jersey U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman opposed the move, saying in court filings the Justice Department doesn’t publicize the names of uncharged co-conspirators.
But Wigenton ruled last week that the public interest of the media trumped the privacy interest of the conspirators.
John Doe’s attorney Jenny Kramer said in court filings that the judge’s ruling failed to consider the harm to her client in releasing names now and not at the trial of Baroni and Kelly. She said there was no “urgent need” for the media to learn the identity of her client and she should get a chance to show the order was “improvidently granted.”
Wait for Trial
“While the public undoubtedly has an interest in the criminal case against Baroni and Kelly, it has no comparable interest in knowing Doe’s identity,” Kramer wrote. “To the extent any unindicted co-conspirator has taken any action relevant to the criminal case, that conduct and the actor’s identity will be learned at trial, where it can be placed in context.”
The news organizations opposed John Doe’s request, calling it a "frivolous and desperate attempt" made by someone who failed to ask the court to stop the release until after the judge’s order. They also said the notion that the person will be "branded a felon" is without merit given that an unindicted co-conspirator is by definition someone who isn’t charged with a crime and John Doe has conceded his name may come out at trial.
The scandal hurt Christie’s image through his failed bid for the Republican nomination for the White House. He dropped out in February and backed Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee. Trump said last week that if he wins, Christie would lead his post-election transition team.
The cases are North Jersey Media Group v. U.S., 16-cv-00267, and U.S. v. Baroni, 15-cr-00193, U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey (Newark).