Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Court keeps Bridgegate 'unindicted' names list secret

A list of people who conspired to shut down access lanes to the George Washington Bridge but were not indicted will remain secret, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday. 

Salvador Rizzo reports for The Record;

But the list – or at least the names of some people on it – may be revealed during the upcoming trial over the lane closures, the court said. Opening statements in the trial are scheduled for next week.

Two of Governor Christie’s former top associates, Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly, will stand trial this year on charges that they jammed Fort Lee with traffic for five days to punish the borough’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, who declined to endorse Christie’s re-election in 2013.

Another former political operative working for Christie, David Wildstein, has pleaded guilty in the scheme.

But prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark also drew up a list of “unindicted co-conspirators” – people who they say joined the conspiracy to shut down the access lanes or helped in the subsequent cover-up.

The co-conspirator list has generated speculation and intense interest from New Jersey and national media organizations, because its existence indicates that the George Washington Bridge conspiracy involves more people than have been publicly identified. The list could include other officials – beyond Baroni, Kelly and Wildstein – who worked in Christie’s administration, his re-election campaign, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey or other government bodies.

“I find it highly doubtful that I’ll be on that list given that I didn’t know it was going on,” Christie told reporters in May.

A group of media organizations led by North Jersey Media Group sued to gain access to the list, arguing that it was an important public document. North Jersey Media Group publishes The Record and is owned by Gannett.

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An anonymous “John Doe” whose real name appears on the list opposed its release, arguing that his reputation would be tarnished even though he was not charged with any crime.
U.S. District Judge Susan D. Wigenton ruled in favor of the media coalition in May and ordered that the list be disclosed.

“There is very little that is private about the lane closures or the lives of the people allegedly connected to them,” Wigenton wrote in a May opinion, adding that the “individuals thus far identified as being involved in the lane closings” were all public employees or elected officials.

“Anyone named in the conspirator letter is likely to have held a similar position,” she wrote.

A three-judge panel of the 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals overturned Wigenton’s ruling Wednesday. The court found that the prosecutors’ list “is not subject to any First Amendment or common law right of public access.”

“Public access to judicial documents and court proceedings is a respected tradition and important legal principle, but it has bounds,” Judge Kent A. Jordan wrote for the appeals court. “That is so even in a case affected by heightened public interest. The time may come, perhaps at trial, when the information in the conspirator letter ought to be made public, but that time is not here yet.”

The appeal hinged on whether the prosecutors’ list constituted a “bill of particulars,” a supplement to an indictment that the public has a right to see. The court found that it was not; instead, it ruled that the list was an element of the discovery process that takes place before a trial, which is not subject to public access.

“‘Information wants to be free’ is, in some quarters, a popular slogan, but there are dangers to the administration of justice in too freely granting access to information of the sort at issue here,” Jordan wrote. Judges Thomas Ambro and Anthony Scirica joined his opinion.

“The conspirator letter is not a bill of particulars because the government did not regard it as one, the [trial] court did not order one, the defendants did not behave as though they had received one, and the letter itself did not serve the purpose of one,” Jordan wrote.

Disclosing to the public selective parts of the discovery files before a trial could “jeopardize” a defendant’s legal strategy, Jordan added. U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, the top federal prosecutor in New Jersey, opposed the release of the list.

Jenny Kramer, John Doe’s attorney at the firm Chadbourne & Parke, did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

ABC, The Associated Press, Bloomberg News, NBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other companies all joined the lawsuit seeking access to the list.

“We continue to believe that the public is entitled to the list of unindicted co-conspirators under the First Amendment,” said the attorney for the media group, Bruce S. Rosen of the firm McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen, & Carvelli. An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court “would be difficult in view of the time frame and some or all of these names may be released at trial,” he added.

Jury selection in the trial of Baroni and Kelly is set to begin Thursday in Newark.

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