On Friday, federal prosecutors announced three former officials linked to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) will face criminal charges as a result of the so-called “Bridgegate” scandal.
However, the major question is obviously what this means for Christie, a potential 2016 presidential candidate. While the scandal has clearly tarnished the governor’s reputation, as of now, it appears that, legally, Christie is out of the woods.
At a press conference after the charges were revealed, US Attorney Paul Fishman repeatedly declined to say Christie has been “cleared” in the investigation. At the same time, he also said the current evidence indicates there will not be charges against the governor or anyone else.
“Based on the evidence currently available to my office and to the agents with whom we’ve been working, we will not be bringing any further charges related to the matters discussed in today’s indictment,” Fishman said.
Fishman also said it was possible Christie’s allies could have acted without the governor’s knowledge even though the indictment he filed in federal court on Friday accused the three former officials of attempting to target one of the governor’s political rivals.
“Sometimes the third party knows and sometimes the third party doesn’t know,” Fishman said.
Fishman additionally made clear it was somewhat unusual for him, as a federal prosecutor who cannot generally comment on ongoing investigations, to take pains to indicate the investigation currently stopped with those who have been charged.
“I have said something I think actually that I think I’ve never said before at a press conference. … I’ve never said anything like that,” Fishman said about his statement that the current evidence would not yield further charges.
Still, while Fishman declared there is nothing currently linking Christie to the scheme, the prosecutor said his office may find unindicted co-conspirators. Fishman also indicated the game could change if he uncovers new evidence.
“It’s like the end of ‘Downton Abbey,'” Fishman said. “You’ve got to wait until the whole other season.”
Christie has repeatedly claimed he had no knowledge or involvement in the closures.
Court documents have revealed that David Wildstein, a longtime associate of Christie’s, admitted he participated in a scheme to punish a political rival by ordering lane closures on the George Washington Bridge in September 2013. Some Democrats have alleged the closures were ordered as retaliation against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich (D), who declined to endorse Christie’s 2013 reelection bid. The closures led to days of gridlock in Fort Lee.
The indictment also alleged that two other officials — Bil Baroni, a former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Christie’s former deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, Bridget Anne Kelly — conspired to arrange the lane closures in order to “punish” Sokolich. The Port Authority oversees the bridge, and both Wildstein and Baroni were appointed to the agency by Christie.
Fishman indicated that Wildstein has been “cooperating” with prosecutors for “some time.” In statements released after the charges were revealed, both Kelly and Baroni implied they were being unjustly accused.
“I am innocent of the charges that have been brought against me, and I intend to vigorously defend myself and tell my side of the story,” Kelly said in a statement on the webpage for her newly launched legal defence fund.
Baroni’s attorneys also released a statement wherein they characterised Wildstein as being, by his own admission, a “criminal and a liar.”
“Bill Baroni, the former Deputy Executive Director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is innocent of the charges brought against him today by federal prosecutors. The accusations are false, and when the facts come to light, Bill will be fully exonerated,” the statement said.
While he was emphatic that the current evidence will not result in additional charges, Fishman clearly left a door open.
Either Baroni or Kelly could cooperate as Wildstein has and potentially provide additional evidence to prosecutors. On multiple occasions, Fishman declined to discuss other potential plea deals, though he noted it’s not unusual for people to cooperate with prosecutors after being charged.
“It is not uncommon for people, after they get indicted, to plead guilty,” Fishman said.
Still, since they’re facing potential prison time, all three officials accused of wrongdoing in the scandal would clearly have a reason to implicate their higher ups. Indeed, Wildstein’s attorney has already said “evidence exists” Christie was aware of the scheme to target Sokolich with the lane closures. But Fishman was emphatic that nothing Wildstein has presented so far yielded charges against the governor.
Given their evident interest in tying others to the scandal, Wildstein and the other officials charged with involvement in “Bridgegate” would likely need documentary proof if they hope to tie anyone else to the lane closures.
Lawyers hired by Christie’s office conducted an internal review of the lane closures last year. They concluded Kelly and Wildstein were the only ones who “knowingly participated” in the scheme. Christie’s lead attorney, Randy Mastro, also told Business Insider no written smoking gun exists tying the governor to the closures.
In statements released following the charges, both Christie and Mastro said the evidence from Fishman backed up their claims that the governor had nothing to do with “Bridgegate.” Both Baroni and Wildstein resigned from their positions as questions about the scandal mounted, and Kelly was fired early last year after an email emerged indicating she was involved in discussions about the closures before they were ordered.
“Today’s charges make clear that what I’ve said from day one is true, I had no knowledge or involvement in the planning or execution of this act. The moment I first learned of this unacceptable behaviour I took action, firing staff believed to be accountable, calling for an outside investigation and agreeing to fully cooperate with all appropriate investigations, which I have done. Now 15 months later it is time to let the justice system do its job,” Christie said.
In his statement, Mastro similarly said there is “nothing in today’s news that differs in any material way from what we reported more than a year ago.”
“We concluded then, and it remains the case today, that neither Governor Christie nor anyone else who remained on his staff had any involvement in or prior knowledge of the lane realignment,” Mastro said
Indeed, if Mastro’s initial claim that there is no documentary evidence tying the governor to the scandal proves correct, Christie is unlikely to face charges.
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