In win for Christie, judge orders new hearing in official misconduct case

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Tollbooth lanes (lower left) leading to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, N.J. A New Jersey judge on Thursday ruled there was no probable cause that Gov. Christie violated state law in 2013 by allegedly refusing to order his aides to reopen lanes at the George Washington Bridge that had been closed in an act of political revenge.

A New Jersey judge on Thursday ordered a lower court to hold a new hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to investigate Gov. Christie’s handling of the September 2013 lane closures at the George Washington Bridge.

Superior Court Judge Bonnie J. Mizdol reversed a municipal court ruling in October that there was probable cause that Christie had engaged in official misconduct by allegedly refusing to order his aides to reopen lanes that had been closed in an act of political revenge.

Mizdol’s decision Thursday wasn’t a complete victory for Christie, however. Mizdol, sitting in Bergen County, ruled on narrow grounds, finding that the Republican governor had been denied his constitutional right to counsel at the October preliminary hearing.

She did not rule on the substantive merits of the complaint and sent the case back to municipal court for a new probable cause hearing, where Christie’s attorney can participate.

At the October hearing, Municipal Court Judge Roy McGeady did not permit Christie’s attorney to participate or cross-examine testimony submitted by Bill Brennan, a retired Teaneck firefighter who filed the complaint against the governor. McGeady referred the complaint to the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, which subsequently joined Christie in opposing the probable cause finding.

Denial of counsel "mandates reversal of the probable cause finding,” Mizdol wrote. She added that Christie “was improperly denied counsel at a critical stage.”

Brennan’s complaint was based on testimony from a government witness in the federal criminal trial of former Christie aides Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni. Official misconduct carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.

The witness, David Wildstein, a former high-ranking executive at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, testified that he and Baroni had bragged to Christie about massive traffic near the bridge on Sept. 11, 2013, while the lane closures were underway.

Wildstein also testified that Baroni told Christie the Port Authority was refusing to return phone calls from Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who had refused to endorse the Republican governor’s reelection campaign that year.

Baroni and Kelly were found guilty of seven felony counts each in November. They are seeking new trials and have vowed to appeal the verdict. Wildstein pleaded guilty in 2015.

Brennan, who announced last month that he would seek the Democratic nomination for governor, said Thursday that Christie’s attorney had made an “epic strategic blunder in moving to dismiss these charges.”

At the new hearing, Brennan said, he would introduce Kelly’s trial testimony that she had informed Christie on Sept. 12 about a complaint from the mayor about “government retribution.”

Christie has denied Wildstein's and Kelly's allegations. The governor’s attorney didn’t respond to a request for comment.