By Salvador Rizzo
A judge in Fort Lee, N.J., has found probable cause that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie committed official misconduct as part of the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal.
Christie said through a spokesman he is appealing the ruling by Judge Roy F. McGeady immediately.
For years Christie has denied any knowledge of the plot to close down access lanes to the bridge. But lawyers for the prosecution and the defense in the ongoing federal trial over the lane closures have cast doubt on Christie's assertions.
David Wildstein, a former political operative for Christie who has admitted orchestrating the traffic jam, testified in federal court that he told Christie about the lane closures during a Sept. 11 memorial ceremony at Ground Zero, while the lane closures were causing gridlock in Fort Lee. That contradicts Christie's statements.
Wildstein is the main witness for the prosecution and has said he is cooperating with U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman's office in part because he hopes to avoid prison.
After his testimony surfaced in the federal trial, a local activist filed a legal complaint against Christie in Fort Lee municipal court.
Christie engaged in official misconduct because he should have reversed the lane closures once he became aware of them, activist Bill Brennan argues.
"Wildstein has every motive to be truthful," Brennan wrote in a legal filing on Oct. 5, adding that "the U.S. attorney has an affirmative duty to safeguard the criminal justice system from perjured testimony."
It is up to the jury in the federal trial to decide whether Wildstein's testimony constitutes credible evidence; the jury has not made any findings and continues to hear testimony from witnesses.
"This is a dishonorable complaint filed by a known serial complainant and political activist with a history of abusing the judicial system," said Christie spokesman Brian Murray. "The simple fact is the governor had no knowledge of the lane realignments either before they happened or while they were happening. This matter has already been thoroughly investigated by three separate independent investigations."
The municipal court judge's finding of probable cause is not a criminal charge against Christie.
Probable cause is a relatively low bar in the court system that allows law enforcement agencies to investigate, search, charge and arrest individuals, but it is not a basis for a criminal conviction.
The Bergen County Prosecutor's Office may decide whether or not to pursue an indictment against Christie. But a higher court could dismiss the case before any determination by prosecutors.
Decisions made by municipal court judges may be appealed to the state Superior Court. Christie indicated Thursday that he will appeal.
Murray said "the ruling is being appealed immediately."
The governor appoints all the county prosecutors, subject to Senate confirmation.
Christie last month nominated acting Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir S. Grewal to formally take over the office, but the Senate has not scheduled a confirmation hearing.
A spokeswoman for Grewal declined to comment on the probable cause finding on Thursday.
Federal prosecutors say that Christie aides and associates shut down the lanes for five mornings in September 2013 to cause a massive traffic jam in Fort Lee, their way of punishing the borough's Democratic mayor for declining to endorse Christie's re-election campaign.
Christie's former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, is standing trial in Newark over the lane closures. Bill Baroni, formerly Christie's top staff appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge, is also on trial.
Wildstein has pleaded guilty.
(c)2016 The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)