Could Chris Christie be prosecuted over ‘bridgegate’ road closure scandal? January 9, 2014Posted by jefhenninger in News.
Tags: bridgegate, Bridget Anne Kelly, Chris Christie, David Wildstein, Mark Sokolich, Michael Drewniak
At this point, almost every knows that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is facing a huge scandal involving the September lane closure of the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, New Jersey. He had a two hour press conference today where he denied any involvement in the revenge road closure and instead, shifted blame to staffers. This lane closure created traffic jams that not only inconvenienced many but may have actually led to the death of a 91 year old woman. Thus, politicians have called for criminal charges to be filed.
According to this article from the Washington Times, N.J. state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg said that she thinks criminal charges are forthcoming while N.J. state Sen. Ray Lesniak joined the call for criminal investigation, pushing for the federal government to look into the matter. According to the New York Times, the United States attorney for New Jersey, Paul J. Fishman, opened an inquiry after the matter was referred to the office by the inspector general for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls the bridge.
So now the question is, will Chris Christie (and/or anyone else) be prosecuted here? Law Professor Alan Dershowitz has already said that the Governor should “lawyer up” and prepare for prosecution. With all due respect to Mr. Dershowitz, I think it is far too early to start talking about criminal prosecution here. Let’s put aside the fact that Chris Christie is one of the most popular politicians at the moment. Let’s view him as the average defendant for right now. A criminal prosecution of Christie involves a host a problems. The first problem is trying to link Christie to any conspiracy to commit a crime. Without some type of hard evidence (emails, text messages, etc) that shows that Christie authorized the lane closure, it will be hard to link it back to him. The Government would have to rely almost exclusively on the testimony of others such as the aides that have been fired as well as others that may have been involved. Between being fired, publicly embarrassed and looking at possible criminal charges themselves, these alleged co-conspirator may say anything to not only save themselves but get revenge on Christie. A jury would have to believe one or more of these other people over that of Christie whose lawyers could shred them on cross examination.
The other problem here is that the Government is not investigating a criminal organization or a long-term criminal conspiracy where the head of the conspiracy interacts with all of the other conspirators. Assuming arguendo that Christie did in fact participate in this revenge scandal, how many people actually interacted with him? Chances are that he did not speak with all of those involved. In fact, he may have only actually discussed it with one person. Thus, the Government may have to rely on only one co-conspirator to prove that Christie was involved instead of multiple co-conspirators.
That brings me to the next problem. One of the reasons why the US Attorney’s Office gets such great results is that is cherry-picks its cases. They make sure that they have a rock solid case. When they do lose a case, it rocks the entire office and a postmortem is done to fine out what happened. In other words, they take losing seriously. This helps the criminal defense practitioner when dealing with federal investigations. If you as the attorney for the possible defendant can cast some doubt on the Government’s case, they will likely back off. I know because I have used this strategy with great success.
Thus, in the average case, the Government faces some challenges here. Of course, this is not the average case. If Christie was in fact prosecuted, it would easily become the trial of the century. Christie would assemble this century’s version of the dream team and the story would be covered by media outlets worldwide. Despite this scandal, Christie is incredibly popular. Thus, the Government would have to have a perfect case. If Christie were to be found not guilty, the impact on the US Attorney’s office and President Obama would be unfathomable. As a result, the US Attorneys’ office would be very hesitant to take such a risk. Absent a smoking gun, there may not be enough for the Government to roll the dice.
Its nice to make headlines and talk about criminal prosecution and I think the case should be investigated. However, before anyone starts talking about Christie doing a perp walk soon, the practical reality of that scenario needs to be considered. Like him or hate him, don’t expect the US Attorney’s office to issue an arrest warrant for a popular Governor like Christie absent some of the most compelling evidence to ever hit a court room. Instead, he may face some lesser form of punishment such as impeachment as called for by Paul Munshine of the Star Ledger.