Saturday, February 6, 2016

Bridgegate defendants win access to Christie aides' emails

   Kelly and Baroni - Amy Newman/Kevin R. Wexler/Record staff photographers 
Bridgegate, the political scandal that has dogged and damaged the GOP presidential campaign of NJ Governor Chris Christie is back in the news.

The Record's Peter J. Samson and Paul Berger report today:

A federal judge on Friday gave defense attorneys a powerful tool in the George Washington Bridge lane-closure case: the ability to subpoena emails and other documents withheld by the law firm Governor Christie hired to investigate who closed the lanes and why.

U.S. District Judge Susan D. Wigenton said such power, given to lawyers for Bridget Anne Kelly, a onetime deputy chief of staff to Christie, and Bill Baroni, a former deputy executive director of the Port Authority, “was not a fishing expedition.”

The pair, who both appeared in court Friday, are accused of closing two of three local access lanes to the bridge for five mornings in September 2013 to punish Fort Lee’s mayor for not endorsing Christie’s reelection bid. The closings, which were initially explained as part of a traffic study, caused widespread traffic jams, and the resulting scandal continues to dog Christie’s presidential bid. The trial is scheduled to begin on May 16, but that date is expected to be pushed back.

Christie’s office hired the powerful law firm Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher in January 2014 to look into who was behind the lane closures. The firm’s lawyers were given access to thousands of internal documents from the governor’s office and interviewed more than 70 people. The resulting 334-page report, published in March 2014, blamed Kelly and David Wildstein, a high-ranking Port Authority official with ties to Christie, for shutting the bridge lanes, but it concluded that the governor had no knowledge of the lane closures.

The report also found that although Baroni’s behavior was “concerning,” there was no evidence that he knew the lane closures were politically motivated.

At the time of its release, the report was widely criticized, in particular by Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, and state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck, the leaders of a joint legislative committee that investigated the lane closures, who said the report was lacking in “objectivity and thoroughness.”

Subpoena power

During their own 16-month investigation, federal prosecutors subpoenaed Gibson Dunn for relevant documents that were compiled as part of the report. Defense lawyers for Kelly and Baroni say that prosecutors did not sufficiently challenge Gibson Dunn when the firm redacted and withheld many documents.

With the judge’s ruling Friday, attorneys now have subpoena power to force Gibson Dunn to turn over those documents, including previously withheld emails sent between key Christie allies during the week of the lane closures.

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