NEWARK, New Jersey (AP) — The traffic jam at the foot of the world’s busiest bridge that was apparently engineered by allies of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as political payback could lead to criminal charges such as conspiracy or official misconduct, legal experts say.
Federal prosecutors and both houses of the state Legislature are investigating the scandal, which is threatening Christies’ status as rising star in the Republican Party and possible presidential candidate in 2016.
It broke wide open last week with the release of emails and text messages suggesting that a top Christie aide ordered the lane closings in mid-September to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, who did not endorse Christie for re-election. The bridge in question connects Fort Lee in New Jersey, to New York City.
Fort Lee officials and others complained that the four days of gridlock at the George Washington Bridge delayed emergency vehicles, school buses and countless commuters and put people’s lives in danger.
Legal experts said those involved in the lane closings also could be charged with perjury or obstruction if they lied to or misled investigators or if they produced documents after the fact that were designed to thwart an investigation.
“To me, the most plausible course for a federal criminal investigation would be to see if there’s any cover-up,” said Rutgers University law professor Stuart Green, adding that under the law, the conduct being covered up does not have to be criminal in itself.
On Wednesday, a former federal prosecutor who helped convict former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich of corruption, Reid Schar, was tapped to investigate the scandal for the state Assembly.
While the furor could haunt Christie’s expected run for president in 2016, there has been no evidence he had a role in the closings. But those who were involved could face conspiracy charges, according to Fordham University law professor Jim Cohen, who teaches a course in law and responsibility.
“The easiest criminal issue is conspiracy, and this was clearly a conspiracy among several people to accomplish an illegal purpose — the shutdown of the roadways not in accordance with whatever rules govern shutting down the roadways,” Cohen said. “And conspiracy is often breathtakingly easy to prove.”
New Jersey’s law on official misconduct could also be invoked, though Green said he couldn’t remember it being applied in a case like this. The statute prohibits public servants from benefiting — or from depriving another of a benefit — through the “unauthorized exercise” of their official duties.
That statute could be applied to the bridge scandal, Green said, except that the law is usually employed in cases where there was some kind of tangible benefit, such as money.
New Jersey officials claimed in recent months that the lane closings were part of a traffic study, and last week studies of the gridlock, complete with pictures, graphs and calculations of wait times and lost toll revenue, were made public by lawmakers investigating the scandal.
But an obstruction charge could be brought if it turns out the studies were ordered up in an elaborate attempt to conceal an act of political retribution.
Among the documents in the case is an August email from Bridget Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, to David Wildstein, a Christie ally at the Port Authority of New York and Jersey, which operates the bridge. Kelly wrote: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
“Got it,” Wildstein replied.
As the scandal unfolded, Wildstein resigned last month, as did former Port Authority deputy executive director Bill Baroni, a Christie appointee. Christie fired Kelly last week.
Through a spokeswoman, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman declined to comment Wednesday on his office’s review of the case.
As for other legal repercussions, civil action is already underway: At least two lawsuits have been filed, one in state court by several livery car companies and three individuals, the other in federal court by several New Jersey residents.
Both accuse New Jersey officials of illegal activity in creating the traffic jams and seek unspecified damages.