The lane closure scandal known as Bridgegate found new momentum this week when a municipal court judge ruled that there is probable cause to investigate New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie over his alleged role in the plot.
Although this is bad news for Christie — who is leading GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump’s transition team and who has faced a political battering from the scandal — it's a very preliminary ruling. The case still faces a slew of hurdles before it goes anywhere, according to legal and political experts.
“There are multiple steps that have to take place before something tangible happens,” said Daniel French, who served as a United States Attorney for the Northern District of New York.
The criminal complaint was initially lodged late last month by activist and former Teaneck, New Jersey, firefighter Bill Brennan. It stemmed from the ongoing, separate Bridgegate trial in which ex-Port Authority official David Wildstein testified that Christie knew about the September 2013 lane closures — allegedly ordered by his staffers as political retribution against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey.
The lane closures caused a crippling traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge for days. Brennan has argued the scandal has cost New Jersey taxpayers millions of dollars. Christie has from the beginning maintained that he had no knowledge or involvement in the lane closures. Still, the whiff of scandal has clung to him for years, providing seemingly endless fodder for late-night comedians and arguably being the single biggest setback to his dashed presidential dreams.
So what happens now?
One of the biggest unknown questions is just who will be handling the case. Technically, it’s supposed to go to the Bergen County prosecutor’s office, which would ultimately decide whether the case will be sent to a grand jury. But Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir S. Grewal was appointed by Christie himself, raising a potential conflict of interest.
Dennis Kearney, a lawyer and former assistant prosecutor for Essex County, said it’s likely that Grewal would recuse himself and turn the case over to the state attorney general. A spokeswoman for the Bergen County prosecutor’s office declined to comment.
“But the AG could look at the case and say, ‘Hey listen, I was appointed by the governor too. Even though I was confirmed, this may be an appearance of impropriety for me,” said Kearney, who is currently with the Day Pitney law firm.
Further complicating the matter is the ongoing federal trial. “Nobody is going to touch this until that trial is over. No one wants to interfere with the feds,” said Kearney. The trial is expected to last a few more weeks.
Finally, the governor’s office said they plan to appeal the municipal court ruling — which could take time to settle.
“It’s not entirely clear if it will pass muster on appeal. Even if it does, the case would then go to a county prosecutor on whether to actually bring charges,” said Ben Dworkin, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.
Brennan, the Wayne resident who launched the complaint, said, “I’m pleased that the justice system so far is working the way it was designed to work. There has never been any doubt about the veracity of my complaint.” And while he was not personally affected by the 2013 lane closures, he said, “I am personally affected by the governor of the state of New Jersey and his appointees who turned the mighty power of the government against citizens as a form of coercion for political reasons.”
Wildstein has already pleaded guilty in connection with the scheme. He has testified against two of Christie's former allies — his ex-deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and his former top Port Authority official, Bill Baroni, over their alleged roles in the scandal.
While legally the latest announcement may not be a knockout for Christie, “appearances are everything,” said Kearney. “Who the heck wants to be subject of an open criminal investigation. The appearances are terrible,” he said, noting the governor’s large role in Trump’s campaign.
And then there’s the New Jersey governor’s race to consider. Christie’s term ends in January. “This affects every Republican who wants to succeed him as governor. He’s the albatross around everyone’s neck,” said Dworkin.