NEWARK — The trial is still months away, but the case continues to have political reverberations.
On Tuesday, a federal judge ordered the release of a list of unindicted co-conspirators tied to the Bridgegate scandal. And while those names were not immediately released, the prospect of new revelations led to growing speculation as to how high into the administration of Gov. Chris Christie those individuals could take the long-awaited case.
The judge, in her order on Tuesday, said all were public employees, or elected and public officials, and it is likely that the identities of most have already surfaced in records that came out during legislative hearings into the 2013 lane closures at the George Washington Bridge that launched a federal investigation into who was responsible.
The judge did not set a deadline for the release of the information and prosecutors have not said whether they intend to appeal.
Meanwhile, those close to the investigation said there will likely be nothing unexpected to most people once the names are released and any new revelations may not come out until the trial begins in early September.
Awaiting trial in the case are William Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Bridget Anne Kelly, former deputy chief of staff to Christie, who were charged a year ago with conspiracy and fraud in connection with the lanes shutdown at bridge, in what has been described by federal prosecutors as a politically motivated scheme to tie up traffic in Fort Lee. According to the U.S. Attorney's office, the plot was aimed at punishing Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich after he declined to back Christie, a Republican, in his gubernatorial re-election bid.
The governor, who has said he was unaware of the lane shutdown plan, has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
The issue decided Tuesday was over who else may have known about the lane closures, which were first explained away by some Port Authority officials as a planned traffic study. In subsequent legislative hearings, it came out that the traffic study was concocted as a cover to mislead elected officials and the public.
In the indictments charging Baroni and Kelly, repeated reference was made to conversations and emails with various unidentified individuals that prosecutors believed may have known about the plot to abruptly shut down access lanes to the bridge to cause massive traffic disruptions, but were not charged. However, their names had been kept under seal by the judge in the case, at the request of prosecutors.
Earlier this year, a consortium of news organizations, including NJ Advance Media, went to court asking a federal judge to release the list. Lawyers for the consortium argued that the public had a right to know who those people were.
Among the news outlets were the North Jersey Media Group, Bloomberg News, WNBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and public news outlets in New York and New Jersey.
In an eight-page ruling on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton agreed that the names should be public, saying "there is very little that is private about the lane closures or the lives of the people allegedly connected to them."
She said while privacy for third-parties was important in criminal cases, "this court is satisfied that the privacy interests of uncharged third parties are insufficiently compelling to outweigh the public's right of access."
Wigenton added that because of the First Amendment arguments being made, the confidentiality of the list of co-conspirators could only be permissible if "necessitated by a compelling governmental interest" and "narrowly tailored to serve that interest."
She found none, writing that "disclosure is appropriate and the media's motion for access to the list of unindicted co-conspirators is granted."
Following the ruling, Bruce Rosen, the lead attorney on behalf of the news organizations who went to court, asked the judge for an immediate turnover of the records. As of last night, she had not issued such an order. The U.S. Attorney's office repeatedly declined comment.
Lawyers for Baroni and Kelly, meanwhile, have argued that while the lane closures may have caused "improperly created traffic," the inconvenience to motorists caused by cutting off Fort Lee's access to some traffic lanes at the bridge did not amount to a federal crime.
"At what point does the inconvenience become a federal crime?" asked attorney Michael Critchley, who represents Kelly, in recent court filings. "Does the inconvenience associated with adjusting the access lanes from three to two constitute a violation of the as-of-yet recognized constitutional right to be free from inconvenience?"
Seeking dismissal of the charges, Critchly in a brief said the federal anti-corruption statute cited in the case was intended as an anti-bribery and theft statute, and that neither Kelly nor Baroni profited from the lane closures.READ THE BRIDGEGATE RULING:
Ted Sherman may be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TedShermanSL. Find NJ.com on Facebook.
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