Christie’s Bridgegate Entanglement Hangs on Ruling by N.J. JudgeBy
Former firefighter accuses governor of official misconduct
Three former allies were convicted in plot versus mayor
Chris Christie continues to battle fallout from the George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal as an ex-fireman prods state prosecutors to pursue his complaint charging the New Jersey Governor with official misconduct.
Christie wants a clean break from the Bridgegate affair that helped bury his Republican run for the White House, and his lawyer urged a state judge Wednesday to dismiss the complaint filed by the retired fireman, Bill Brennan. He claims that Christie should have halted the lane closings and failed to order his subordinates to “take all necessary action to reopen local access lanes” to the bridge in September 2013.
Former Christie allies, Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni, were convicted in federal court on Nov. 4 for plotting to create traffic jams to punish a local mayor for failing to endorse Christie’s re-election. Brennan’s complaint, citing testimony about Christie from the trial, got unexpected life on Oct. 13 when a municipal judge found probable cause to issue a summons. But Christie’s lawyer asked a state judge to dismiss the case.
“The municipal court erred,” Christie’s attorney Craig Carpenito argued Wednesday in state court in Hackensack. “This complaint is fatally flawed. Our governor has basically been dragged through the mud. He’s been affected both personally and professionally.”
A Bergen County prosecutor, Annmarie Cozzi, joined Carpenito’s request, saying the municipal judge made a procedural error in finding probable cause. Both lawyers said that Carpenito should have been allowed to question Brennan at the probable cause hearing.
“The state agrees that the governor’s rights were violated,” Cozzi said. Because of that “procedural defect,” she urged Superior Court Judge Bonnie Mizdol to reverse the probable-cause finding. The judge said she will decide by the end of the week.
Mizdol ruled last month that Brennan doesn’t have the legal right to ask that a special prosecutor should handle his complaint in place of the state attorney’s general office and the Bergen County prosecutor’s office.
Former Christie ally David Wildstein pleaded guilty and testified at trial that Christie knew of the lane closings as they took place. Baroni also testified that Christie knew of the lane closings, and Kelly said she discussed it with him a month earlier. But Carpenito said that none of them said that Christie knew it was a plot to punish the mayor.
Christie has denied he had knowledge of the scheme at the time.
Brennan was a Teaneck firefighter who won a $3 million judgment after claiming township officials harassed him for criticizing department policies. He later went to college and law school, and has developed a reputation as a combative civic activist. He is running for governor, and Carpenito assailed him as a “political candidate with an ax to grind.”
Brennan attended the hearing and spoke outside the courthouse. Carpenito, he said, “just can’t believe” he has a “civic ability to hold people accountable” for their actions. “The system is being bent to the will of the governor.”
Christie said Tuesday he will spend his final year as governor on the issue of combating drug addiction. In his annual policy-setting speech, he also made an unspecified pledge to address the nation’s worst-funded public pension.
The compassionate appeal to fight a crime-driving health crisis was a contrast from the fiscal-focused Christie of seven years ago, who came to office vowing to “tear up the state’s credit card” and cut taxes to drive economic growth. Now, unsuccessful in his presidential bid, cast away by President-elect Donald Trump and reviled by New Jersey voters, the 54-year-old Republican will devote his remaining months to an agenda that he says touches him personally.
— With assistance by Elise Young