Misconduct Complaint Against Christie Has Merit, Judge Finds

A citizen’s complaint accusing Gov. Chris Christie of official misconduct in the closing of traffic lanes at the George Washington Bridge in 2013 can proceed, a municipal court judge in New Jersey ruled on Thursday, raising the possibility that Mr. Christie could face a criminal indictment.

The judge, Roy F. McGeady of Bergen County, found that there was probable cause to believe the governor had engaged in official misconduct in connection with the lane closings, as claimed in a complaint filed in September by William J. Brennan of Wayne. As a result of Judge McGeady’s ruling, the Bergen County prosecutor’s office must now decide whether to seek an indictment against Mr. Christie.

The unexpected development, which unfolded in a courtroom that typically deals with relatively minor crimes, is the latest problem for Mr. Christie, a Republican, related to the lane closings.

In his complaint, Mr. Brennan, a retired firefighter with a history of filing lawsuits against government agencies, accuses Mr. Christie of failing to order subordinates to reopen access lanes to the bridge in Fort Lee on Sept. 11, 2013, the third consecutive day the lanes had been closed.

The lane closings, which paralyzed traffic in the town, erupted into a scandal that helped derail Mr. Christie’s presidential ambitions and led to federal charges against three of his allies. Federal prosecutors say the closings were meant to punish Fort Lee’s mayor, a Democrat, for declining to endorse Mr. Christie for re-election.

Two of those allies are now on trial in federal court in Newark, accused of authorizing the closings and trying to cover up the true reason for them; the third has pleaded guilty to his role in the closings and is the prosecution’s main witness.

In his complaint, Mr. Brennan writes that the mayor, Mark J. Sokolich, and Fort Lee residents were deprived of “the benefit and enjoyment of their community as a consequence of this intentional evil-minded act.”

Mr. Brennan, 50, said in an interview on Thursday that he had been moved to file the complaint after a particular day of testimony in the federal trial. He said the basis for his complaint emerged when David Wildstein, who has pleaded guilty to orchestrating the lane-closing scheme, testified that Mr. Christie was told about the closings during a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Mr. Brennan said he was in the federal courthouse listening to Mr. Wildstein testify and later obtained a transcript of his testimony to submit along with his complaint. “Here you have a prime example of the government turning its power against the citizens, and that is the definition of totalitarianism,” Mr. Brennan said.

In New Jersey, a citizen is entitled to file a criminal complaint, which is then assessed by a judge who determines whether there is enough evidence, or probable cause, to issue a summons. If a judge fails to find probable cause, the complaint is dismissed.

Citizen complaints are relatively common in New Jersey’s municipal courts, said J. C. Lore III, director of trial advocacy at Rutgers Law School.

“It’s usually reserved for more petty disputes, between family or neighbors,” Mr. Lore said. Many such cases are resolved through mediation at the behest of the court, he said.

Still, 13,550 citizen complaints involving indictable offenses were filed in New Jersey’s municipal courts in 2015, and 87 percent yielded findings of probable cause, according to data provided by a court spokeswoman.

Brian T. Murray, a spokesman for Mr. Christie, called Mr. Brennan’s complaint “dishonorable” and accused him of being a “serial complainant and political activist with a history of abusing the judicial system.”

“The simple fact is the governor had no knowledge of the lane realignments either before they happened or while they were happening,” said Mr. Murray, who added that the governor’s lawyers planned to appeal the ruling. “This matter has already been thoroughly investigated by three separate independent investigations.”

In a letter sent to Judge McGeady before he ruled on the complaint, Mr. Christie’s lawyers argued strenuously that Mr. Brennan had not met the probable cause threshold, calling his complaint “rife with distortions.”

Mr. Brennan’s litigation history dates to 1996, when he sued the township of Teaneck, claiming he had been harassed for speaking out about safety issues, according The Record, a northern New Jersey newspaper. A jury awarded him nearly $900,000, though a judge later reduced the amount significantly. Mr. Brennan said he earned a law degree after retiring from the Teaneck Fire Department.

According to New Jersey law, obtaining a conviction of official misconduct against Mr. Christie would require proof that he deliberately refrained “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 harm someone else. Such a conviction would carry a potential prison sentence of five to 10 years.

Maureen Parenta, a spokeswoman for the Bergen County prosecutor’s office, declined to comment about whether it would pursue an indictment. Gurbir S. Grewal, the acting prosecutor, was appointed by Mr. Christie.

Do you like this post?

Be the first to comment