No clear end in sight for legal actions over Bridgegate
After three years, two convictions and one guilty plea, the scandal known as Bridgegate might not even be close to a conclusion.
Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who wasn't charged in the federal prosecution in which two former subordinates recently were convicted in a political revenge plot, faces a criminal misconduct complaint in state court.
The scandal already has marred Christie's legacy in New Jersey and complicated his efforts to land a spot in the administration of President-elect Donald Trump.
Christie's two former allies, who were convicted in the scheme to use traffic jams near the George Washington Bridge to punish a mayor who would not endorse Christie, are beginning what could be a lengthy appeals process. There's a separate lawsuit filed in 2014 that that is making its way through the courts.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge, is reviewing trial testimony for potential evidence of ethics violations.
A look at what lies ahead:
"I know you guys all hope for this to go on forever, but unfortunately for you, I suspect by the time we get to October, it will finally be over," Christie told reporters in August, two months before the trial of Bill Baroni and Bridget Kelly.
Last month, a judge allowed a criminal misconduct complaint filed against Christie to go forward in state court, raising the possibility the governor could one day be forced to testify if a grand jury hands up an indictment.
The state attorney general and the county prosecutor with jurisdiction in the case, both hired by Christie, have already recused themselves.
Baroni and Kelly were convicted on federal counts of wire fraud, conspiracy and misapplying Port Authority property for improper purposes. Defense attorneys argued the laws didn't fit the alleged acts.
State misconduct law could be a closer fit, according to Rutgers law professor Stuart Green. The law prohibits any public servant from trying to obtain a benefit if he or she "knowingly refrains from performing a duty which is imposed upon him by law or is clearly inherent in the nature of his office."
"The feds were successful bringing a prosecution, but I've always thought it was an awkward case," Green said. "I still think it was a question of political payback and official misconduct rather than a wire fraud case."
Testimony by Baroni and Kelly that cast doubt on Christie's account of when and how much he knew about the scheme prompted questions to U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman about whether Christie could be prosecuted. That isn't likely, said Michael Weinstein, a former Department of Justice attorney currently in private practice.
"Unless Fishman has concrete and very specific evidence that Gov. Christie is lying, that's a very difficult case and I don't think he's going to go down that road," Weinstein said.
BARONI AND KELLY
Attorneys for Baroni, a Christie appointee to the Port Authority, and Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff, moved last week to have their convictions thrown out.
In addition to their arguments on the law, they'll also likely argue the judge erred by not instructing the jury it could find the defendants not guilty if they felt the government didn't prove the motive of the traffic jams wasn't punishment.
That might be an uphill climb, according to Weinstein.
"The case law makes it clear that motive is not an element" required to prove conspiracy, he said. "They'll probably say that's a too-narrow reading of the law because it's so intricately woven with the fabric of the case."
Weinstein added Baroni and Kelly could take heart in the fact that the Supreme Court has narrowed the definition of some fraud statutes covering public officials and that a more conservative-leaning court under Trump might continue in that vein.
The putative class action combines two lawsuits filed in early 2014 by individuals and businesses affected by the 2013 lane closures.
It doesn't name Christie as a defendant but does name the state of New Jersey, the Port Authority and Christie's re-election organization along with Kelly, Baroni and former Port Authority official David Wildstein, who pleaded guilty in 2015.
The suit alleged racketeering, consumer fraud, breach of contract and other violations.
In September, the judge dismissed some counts but let others go forward, including deprivation of constitutional rights, official misconduct and failure to prevent a civil conspiracy.