By Allison Pries
A Bergen County judge has decided there is probable cause for an official misconduct complaint to proceed against New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in the Bridgegate scandal.
Sitting in Central Municipal Court in Hackensack on Thursday, Judge Roy McGeady made his oral ruling from the bench during a 45-minute proceeding, two weeks after hearing arguments from Wayne resident and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Brennan, who filed the civilian complaint against the governor. A standing-room-only crowd of mostly reporters filled the first-floor courtroom.
The judge read through testimony from the federal trial of former Port Authority Executive Director Bill Baroni and Christie's former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly _ who were both found guilty of seven charges of conspiracy, wire fraud and civil rights violations _ in rendering his decision.
Fort Lee endured days of gridlock from lane closures leading to the George Washington Bridge allegedly set up as political retribution against the borough's mayor because he did not endorse Christie for re-election.
"The court found it very puzzling that the Governor ... seemed to be pleased with the fact that the mayor of a major city's concerns about traffic jams ... would go unanswered, seemingly with the governor's approval," McGeady said.
The other aspect that McGeady focused on in his decision was that none of the players mentioned politics _ except Christie. He also noted that Christie had control over "at the very least" Kelly, McGeady said.
"The court is satisfied that he had knowledge of the traffic problems ... he had reason to believe this traffic was purposefully created, contrived and orchestrated," the Judge said.
Christie has denied any wrongdoing in the case. Brian Murray, Christie's press secretary, released a statement following the judge's ruling.
"This judge has once again violated the Governor's constitutional rights and intentionally ignored the earlier ruling by Assignment Judge (Bonnie) Mizdol. The judge is violating the law, pure and simple. This concocted claim was investigated for three months by the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office, which summarily dismissed it, after concluding that the very same evidence relied upon again by this judge was utter nonsense. That is exactly what it is. The law requires this judge to have done the same. This is a complete non-event."
Brennan, meanwhile, said he was not surprised with the decision.
"I think the judge marshaled the evidence in such a masterful way that gross incompetence is the only way (First Assistant Prosecutor) John L. Higgins can claim he can't get a conviction on these facts," he said.
Brennan also called on citizens serving on grand juries throughout the state to summons him to testify and bring this case before them. And he asked his opponents in the gubernatorial race to take up this issue "because it's that serious that the governor is being immunized from responsibility for criminal acts that we all know he committed," Brennan said.
McGeady set the date of March 10 for Christie to make his first appearance in the case. His attorney, Craig Carpenito, could ask that the governor waive his appearance.
A call to Carpenito's office was not immediately returned.
Probable cause is a relatively low bar in the legal system that allows law enforcement agencies to search for, charge or arrest individuals suspected of wrongdoing, but it is not enough to prove guilt. McGeady, in rendering his decision, talked about the standards of proof in the legal system, which are ranked on a scale from 1 to 6 in ascending order. Probable cause is ranked fourth, two places away from the highest proof, beyond a reasonable doubt.
The citizen's complaint filed by Brennan, a retired Teaneck firefighter and outspoken critic of government officials, has been batted back and forth between the Municipal and Superior courts.
Brennan's complaint was filed Sept. 28 in Fort Lee Municipal Court alleges second-degree official misconduct against Christie. The document says that on or about Sept. 11, 2013, the governor failed to order his subordinates to reopen access lanes to the George Washington Bridge that were closed for a purported traffic study. The complaint was sent to Central Municipal Court in Hackensack, where McGeady found probable cause on Oct. 13, moving the case to state Superior Court. There, Judge Bonnie Mizdol ruled that Brennan's request to appoint a special prosecutor should not be addressed because Brennan, as the civilian complainant, had no stake in the case once it had been granted probable cause.
Then, on Jan. 12, Mizdol rejected a motion by Christie's attorney to dismiss the complaint, saying a new hearing should be granted because Christie's attorney was not allowed to participate.
That new probable cause hearing occurred two weeks ago, on Feb. 2, but neither Christie nor his attorney participated because, just days before the hearing, First Assistant Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Higgins III said in a letter, which his office issued in a news release, that there were "practical problems" with a probable cause determination made by a municipal court judge last year and that prosecution in the matter was unwarranted because the "charge cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt."
Carpenito, then sent an email Feb. 1 to McGeady, stating that the probable cause hearing was moot.
"The BCPO has conducted a thorough investigation of the complaint ... and other relevant evidence over the past three months and has determined that it does not intend to pursue the complainant's frivolous charges," Carpenito wrote.
McGeady, however, said Feb. 2 that the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office does not have the right to dismiss the case at this juncture and denied Carpenito's request to cancel the hearing.
A spokeswoman for the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office declined to comment Thursday.
(c)2017 The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)