Judge to weigh special prosecutor in Christie-bridge case

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Traffic moves across the George Washington Bridge in this 2013 file photograph.

TRENTON - A citizen activist is asking a New Jersey judge to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate whether Gov. Christie broke state law when he allegedly refrained from ordering his aides to stop a political payback scheme involving the George Washington Bridge in 2013.

A hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Wednesday before Assignment Judge Bonnie J. Mizdol in Bergen County.

Bill Brennan, a retired Teaneck firefighter, filed the complaint against Christie in September after a former official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey testified in a federal criminal trial that defendant Bill Baroni, the governor's top executive appointee at the agency, had bragged to Christie at a 9/11 commemorative event about "tremendous" traffic problems in Fort Lee, Bergen County.

In October, a municipal judge in Hackensack found there was probable cause that Christie engaged in official misconduct and referred the case to the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office.

This month, a federal jury convicted Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff, of intentionally misusing Port Authority resources, among other counts.

Prosecutors accused the aides of conspiring to close local access lanes from Fort Lee to the bridge in September 2013 to punish the town's mayor for his refusal to endorse the governor's reelection campaign that year.

Brennan alleged in his complaint that Christie "knowingly refrained from ordering that his subordinates take all necessary action to reopen" the lanes.

Christie's attorney declined to comment.

Christie has denied having prior or contemporaneous knowledge of the lane closures, and his spokesman has said, "This is a dishonorable complaint filed by a known serial complainant and political activist with a history of abusing the judicial system."

State Attorney General Christopher Porrino and acting Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir Grewal, a Christie nominee, have recused themselves from the case.

Their deputies have been assigned to oversee the case against Christie. Brennan argues that they lack the necessary independence to pursue the case.

"No reasonable person could believe that the subordinate" to Christie, the attorney general, or the Bergen County prosecutor "can be impartial and can aggressively pursue a charge against the most powerful governor in the country," Brennan told reporters at the Statehouse on Tuesday.

The governor appoints the attorney general and all county prosecutors, with the advice and consent of the Senate, Brennan noted.

The Attorney General's Office and the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office called Brennan's request unprecedented and baseless.

"Under Brennan's logic, each time an attorney general has a conflict warranting recusal from a criminal matter, the entirety of the Attorney General's Office and all county prosecutors would also be disqualified from handling the matter," prosecutors wrote in a joint court filing this month.

"That has never been the outcome in a matter, let alone the rule in this state, and for good reason."

State law says a public servant is guilty of official misconduct if, for example, he or she "knowingly refrains from performing a duty which is imposed upon him by law or is clearly inherent in the nature of his office" in order to benefit himself or injure another.

The crime carries a sentence of five to 10 years in prison.

aseidman@phillynews.com

856-779-3846

@AndrewSeidman

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