HACKENSACK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — A citizen’s complaint of official misconduct by Republican Gov. Chris Christie over the George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal can move forward, a judge ruled Thursday, raising the possibility that the governor could face indictment.
The complaint, filed by retired Teaneck firefighter William Brennan, alleges Christie “knowingly refrained from ordering that his subordinates take all necessary action to re-open local access lanes” from Fort Lee that had been “closed with the purpose to injure Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich” for not endorsing Christie’s re-election bid.
The complaint claims residents were “deprived the benefit and enjoyment of their community.”
The complaint comes amid the trial of two former Christie appointees who are accused of orchestrating the lane closures in September 2013 as political retribution against Sokolich, a Democrat.
“Now clearly inherent in the nature of the office of governor of the state of New Jersey is to order your subordinates to reopen a closed access lane that was closed specifically, and without regard to the public welfare, to punish somebody,” Brennan said.
Christie wasn’t charged and has denied any involvement in the scheme or its cover-up.
The government’s star witness, David Wildstein, testified that several members in the governor’s inner circle knew about the plot beforehand or soon after and that Christie himself was told about the traffic jams on the third day of the four-day lane closures.
“All I have to do is prove that they told him what they were doing and that’s already been established,” Brennan told WCBS 880’s Peter Haskell.
Christie spokesman Brian Murray issued a statement, calling it “a dishonorable complaint filed by a known serial complainant and political activist with a history of abusing the judicial system.”
“The simple fact is the governor had no knowledge of the lane realignments either before they happened or while they were happening,” the statement said. “This matter has already been thoroughly investigated by three separate independent investigations. The ruling is being appealed immediately.”
The governor’s misconduct case goes to the Bergen County prosecutor’s office, which will decide whether it will lead to an indictment. Christie appointed the prosecutor and thus, a special prosecutor may have to be named.
Spectators in the courtroom who were mostly there for minor criminal violations applauded after the judge’s ruling, NJ.com reported.
Official misconduct is considered a second-degree offense in New Jersey and carries a possible sentence of five to 10 years. An initial court appearance is scheduled for Oct. 24.
Bill Baroni, former deputy executive director at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Bridget Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, are the two currently on trial in the lane closures case.
Baroni and Kelly face charges including conspiracy, fraud and deprivation of civil rights. The most serious charge, wire fraud conspiracy, carries a 20-year maximum prison sentence.
They contend the scheme was conceived and executed by Wildstein, a career political operative and blogger their attorneys have characterized as Christie’s hatchet man at the Port Authority.
As CBS2’s Meg Baker reported, the government rested its case in the Bridgegate trial Thursday afternoon. Prosecutors concluded their case with a video of Baroni’s full testimony in front of New Jersey legislators in 2013, where he presented a traffic study to explain the lane closures.
“As I said in my opening remarks, at some point in late July, members of the Port Authority police spoke to David Wildstein, so it was triggered by a conversation in late July,” Baroni is heard saying in the video.
The traffic study was later determined to be bogus, and Wildstein claimed that Baroni improved the plan to punish Sokolich.
Wildstein also said they bragged about it to Christie at a 9/11 memorial ceremony. The three men were seen at the ceremony smiling and patting each other’s backs.
Earlier Thursday, Port Authority PBA President Paul Nunziato and PBA Vice President Michael Defilippis testified to each other’s story that Baroni told them to take responsibility for the idea of a traffic study and to say it was requested out of concern for traffic officer safety near the bridge, CBS2’s Baker reported.
They both said they refused and were very upset that they were being pulled into the plot.
The defense painted a different picture, saying that the PBA helped with the plot to stay on good terms with the governor’s office.
The is a picture showing Nunziato with Christie and text messages show Defilippis and Wildstein referring to each other as “family.”
Kelly’s defense attorney Michael Critchley has alluded to the fact that Christie knew about the closures and motivation for the plan prior to his long news conference in December of 2013.
Up first for the defense in the trial on Thursday was Christie’s former chief counsel, Charlie McKenna, who said the traffic issue in Fort Lee was not a big deal in the governor’s office at the time. McKenna said he too believed that a traffic study was done.
McKenna is back on the stand on Friday.
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