Why wasn’t Christie charged in ‘Bridge­gate’?

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - NEWS - By Josh Corn­field and Michael Catal­ini

TREN­TON, N.J. >> It was seven days into the trial in the George Wash­ing­ton Bridge lane-clos­ing case when the govern­ment’s key wit­ness dropped the bomb­shell: Gov. Chris Christie, he said, was told about the traf­fic jams while they were go­ing on.

Christie, David Wild­stein told the jury last week, re­sponded with a laugh and a joke about the role pol­i­tics played. The ac­cu­sa­tion blared in head­lines across the coun­try and im­me­di­ately raised one ques­tion: Why wasn’t the Repub­li­can gov­er­nor charged?

First off, the gov­er­nor de­nies he did any­thing wrong or that he knew about the po­lit­i­cal re­venge plot, of­ten dubbed “Bridge­gate,” that Wild­stein says was tied to his 2013 re-elec­tion cam­paign.

Then there’s Wild­stein’s tes­ti­mony, in which he never says that Christie was di­rectly told about the plot. Wild­stein said that de­fen­dant Bill Ba­roni told the gov­er­nor about the traf­fic jams and that the mayor wasn’t happy that he wasn’t get­ting his calls re­turned. Wild­stein tes­ti­fied Ba­roni told the gov­er­nor that Wild­stein was mon­i­tor­ing the sit­u­a­tion and the gov­er­nor made what he took as a sar­cas­tic joke re­gard­ing the “Wally Edge” pseu­do­nym that Wild­stein blogged un­der.

For­mer pros­e­cu­tors say the an­swer is pretty sim­ple. There’s noth­ing in that tes­ti­mony that would be ev­i­dence to con­vict Christie of any­thing.

David Sie­gal, a for­mer assistant fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor for south­ern New York, said Wild­stein’s tes­ti­mony and the pho­tos of the meet­ing at a 9/11 me­mo­rial event don’t prove any­thing. Sie­gal works at the Haynes and Boone law firm and is not in­volved in the trial.

“You’d have to have bet­ter ev­i­dence to charge and con­vict the gov­er­nor of the state of New Jersey,” Sie­gal said.

While the govern­ment’s case against Ba­roni and for­mer Deputy Chief of Staff Brid­get Kelly is built on both Wild­stein’s tes­ti­mony and elec­tronic com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween them, there hasn’t been any in­for­ma­tion link­ing Christie di­rectly to it.

Christie said he never knew about the scheme and did not au­tho­rize it. He dis­puted what Wild­stein tes­ti­fied to on a ra­dio in­ter­view, say­ing “Guess what? I know I didn’t say that.”

Ba­roni and Kelly’s de­fense lawyers have ar­gued that the plot was Wild­stein’s plan. Kelly’s at­tor­ney last week took aim at Wild­stein’s cred­i­bil­ity, point­ing out on cross-ex­am­i­na­tion in­stances when he lied.

Ba­roni and Kelly are on trial over civil rights and wire fraud charges that they or­ches­trated the 2013 lane clo­sures as po­lit­i­cal pay­back against the Demo­cratic mayor of Fort Lee, the com­mu­nity on the New Jersey side of the busy bridge con­nect­ing the state to Man­hat­tan, for not en­dors­ing Christie in his 2013 re-elec­tion. They have pleaded not guilty. Wild­stein pleaded guilty and is co­op­er­at­ing with pros­e­cu­tors, hop­ing for le­niency.

De­bat­ing what Christie knew and when he knew it about the plot has be­come a par­lor game in New Jersey me­dia and po­lit­i­cal cir­cles in the nearly three years since the scan­dal broke open.

Ul­ti­mately, only two of his for­mer al­lies — Ba­roni and Kelly — were charged, while Wild­stein pleaded guilty af­ter talk­ing to pros­e­cu­tors and re­sign­ing from the Port Au­thor­ity of New York and New Jersey, which op­er­ates the bridge.

Wild­stein also tes­ti­fied that oth­ers in Christie’s ad­min­is­tra­tion or with the re­elec­tion cam­paign knew about the plot, ei­ther be­fore it hap­pened or be­fore Christie in­sisted in a De­cem­ber news con­fer­ence that no one in the ad­min­is­tra­tion or cam­paign was in­volved.

Ran­dall Elia­son, a for­mer assistant fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor for the District of Columbia, where he headed the pub­lic cor­rup­tion sec­tion, said that pros­e­cu­tors wouldn’t bring charges against high-pro­file de­fen­dants like a sit­ting gov­er­nor with­out strong ev­i­dence. Elia­son is not in­volved in the case.

Guide­lines for fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors in­clude the re­quire­ment that they should not rec­om­mend any charges that they can’t “rea­son­ably ex­pect to prove be­yond a rea­son­able doubt by legally suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence at trial.”

While Christie is on a list of pos­si­ble wit­nesses, he said he doesn’t ex­pect to be called to the stand in the trial, likely to last an­other month.

Sie­gal said he would be “shocked” if Christie is asked to tes­tify, be­cause at­tor­neys on both sides couldn’t be sure what he would say, and that he could end up hurt­ing ei­ther side’s case.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie lis­tens to a ques­tion from the me­dia Aug. 29 in Tren­ton, N.J.

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