'Bridgegate' Going to Trial

by | June 15, 2016

By Paul Berger

As a federal judge ruled Tuesday that the George Washington Bridge lane closure case will go to trial, lawyers for two former allies of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie invoked the Watergate scandal to demand access to Christie's cellphone and phone records.

Christie's former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and his former top executive appointee at the Port Authority, Bill Baroni, were indicted last year on charges of conspiracy, fraud and civil rights violations related to the politically-motivated closure of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge.

Invoking President Richard Nixon's failed bid to stop the release of White House recordings related to the Watergate scandal, their defense attorneys demanded that lawyers acting on behalf of the governor turn over his cellphone and phone records as well as those of top officials that were used at the time of the 2013 lane closures.

"President Nixon's tapes were not immune from a subpoena," Baroni's attorney Michael Baldassare said in court papers filed late Monday night. "Neither is Governor Christie's phone."

Baroni and Kelly are accused of conspiring to create traffic jams at the Fort Lee entrance to the bridge over five mornings in September to punish the town's mayor, a Democrat, for not endorsing Christie in his bid for re-election in 2013.

The pair say that a law firm hired by the governor's office to investigate the lane closures inappropriately held back documents, SMS messages, emails and other evidence from federal prosecutors. Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge, Susan D. Wigenton, who is overseeing the trial, granted defense teams the power to subpoena emails and other materials from the law firm.

The firm, Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, rejected the subpoena as overly broad, accusing defense attorneys of "smear tactics and ham-handed maneuverings."

"They seem fixated on turning this case into a sideshow about what (this firm) found and did, which has no relevance to the ultimate disposition of this case," Gibson Dunn's lawyers wrote in court documents filed in April.

Michael Critchley, an attorney representing Kelly, said in court papers filed Tuesday that his client "should not have her hands tied" because the governor's office refused to produce and federal prosecutors refused to pursue information "critical" to Kelly's defense.

Critchley said that Gibson Dunn's failure to identify and turn over evidence raised "serious questions," making it necessary "for defendants to have the opportunity to recover other potentially relevant and admissible information."

Critchley also pointed to confusion about who had access to Christie's cellphone records relevant to the lane closures. He cited a statement by the governor that his cellphone was "in the hands of the government," which contradicted statements by federal prosecutors who said that they never had the phone.

Matthew Reilly, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey, said Tuesday that prosecutors relied upon Gibson Dunn to review the governor's cellphone records.

"The governor's telephone was never in the possession of federal authorities," Reilly said. "As is typical in grand jury investigations, where an institution is represented by outside counsel, those lawyers review records, including those contained on mobile phones and computers, to identify and provide material that is responsive to subpoenas. That procedure was followed in this case."

Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher was hired by Christie in January 2014 to investigate the lane closures. The firm's lawyers interviewed dozens of people and were given access to thousands of internal communications.

The resulting report, which was heavily criticized by New Jersey Democrats, absolved the governor of involvement in the lane closure scandal. The report blamed the closures on Kelly and on David Wildstein, a former Port Authority executive who pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges last year and who is cooperating with prosecutors. So far, the law firm has charged the state about $10 million for its legal work related to the bridge scandal.

Baroni's and Kelly's lawyers tried to have the prosecution dismissed, claiming that prosecutors twisted and stretched federal laws to build a high-profile case. They also said that the pair could not have known that their actions were illegal.

In a ruling published Tuesday, Wigenton dismissed the defendants' claims. "If true, the facts do not allege a mistake or a misunderstanding of policies or rules," Wigenton wrote, "but rather an intentional desire to subvert existing policies and/or practices in order to achieve an improper end."

She said that it was up to a jury to decide whether Kelly and Baroni are innocent.

Wigenton also dismissed defense claims that Baroni's testimony before a state legislative committee was improperly used by prosecutors. "Because Baroni was not under oath when he appeared before the Committee, his testimony is not immunized," Wigenton wrote.

The trial is scheduled to begin in Federal Court Newark on Sept. 12.

(c)2016 The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)