Fordham Law

As U.S. Attorney examines GWB scandal, lawyers and pols weigh in on possible outcomes

James Cohen in The Star-Ledger, January 10, 2014

Media Source

Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono, who lost to Gov. Chris Christie in last year’s election, said Thursday that federal prosecutors should investigate not only the George Washington Bridge lane closures but also whether "in other parts of the state, Christie has allowed staffers to use official powers to the detriment of the people they serve."

"You have to wonder: How many instances around the state may be going on?" she said.

Buono also said the fact that David Wildstein, a former top official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination during a legislative hearing in Trenton on Thursday further “raises a spector of criminal issues.”

But Stanley Brand, a public corruption lawyer in Washington, D.C., said he doubts there will be any federal prosecution.

The lane closures, he said, amount to "political skullduggery," and historically, prosecutors just "don’t prosecute political skullduggery."

"There has to be some sizzle there in terms of money or what’s typically recognized as public corruption," Brand said.

A series of e-mails and text messages released Wednesday revealed that aides to the governor conspired to shut the lanes as a political payback for the Fort Lee mayor’s failure to endorse Christie’s re-election bid.
As the political scandal surrounding the September lane closures widens, experts and Democratic opponents of the Republican governor are weighing in on its potential legal ramifications for Christie and his associates.

But what might happen in legal arenas remains unclear.

Thursday, moments before Christie began an apologetic, two-hour news conference in Trenton during which he denied personal knowledge of the lane closings, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman issued a one-line statement from Newark saying his office will look into the scandal to "determine whether a federal law was implicated."

The statement said the inspector general for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey "has referred the matter to us." It also indicated Fishman’s office did not act on its own, but rather on a request.

"I have absolutely nothing to hide," Christie said when asked at the news conference about Fishman’s statement. "My instruction to everybody would be to cooperate and answer questions. We have nothing to hide and this administration has nothing to hide."

An hour after Fishman’s announcement and as Christie continued to field questions, Buono’s office released a strongly worded letter she had sent to Fishman, calling on him to "thoroughly investigate" Christie and his aides and appointees."

"(The lane closures) caused four days of extreme gridlock leading to delays in emergency response times and putting lives at risk," the letter said.

Noting that New Jersey’s acting attorney general is a Christie appointee, Buono, a criminal trial lawyer, said the only impartial look at this would be at the federal level."

Buono (D-Middlesex), who will leave the Legislature next week, lost to Christie by a wide margin in the November election.

In explaining her call for a federal investigation that would look broadly across the state for misconduct by Christie’s administration, Buono said that in four years of dealing with him as governor, she has seen "he has a reputation for exacting revenge" politically.

James Cohen, a Fordham University law professor who runs a federal litigation clinic, said Thursday those involved in the lane closures are vulnerable to civil claims, which Fishman’s office could bring instead of criminal prosecution — particularly if it can be shown the delays caused death or physical harm to anyone.

A letter from Fort Lee’s EMS coordinator to the borough mayor said emergency responders were delayed in responding to at least four calls because of lane closures. In one instance, a 91-year-old woman died, though no one has said the death was a direct result of the closures.

Cohen also said there might be a viable criminal prosecution depending on whether interstate travel and commerce were compromised by the lane closures.

The extortion of Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich is an "interesting" legal claim for Fishman to consider as well, Cohen said.

"Conceivably, if the mayor puts in an endorsement for Christie … the roadwork (blocked lanes) near the bridge would stop," Cohen said.

Cohen also said that even if there is no evidence that Christie directly ordered the lane closures, it is possible a claim could be made if evidence shows his office created a culture and message that told staffers to take vengeful action on his behalf.

But Brand, the Washington trial lawyer, said legal theories should be set aside.

In practice, he said, he doubts federal prosecutors will make a case.

"Political scandal, which is what this is, generally doesn’t generate criminal liability except when people start to obstruct and lie under oath," he said.