Judge lets bridge lane-closing suit go forward without delay

AP News
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Posted: Oct 27, 2015 4:32 PM

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — A federal judge has denied the government's request to delay a lawsuit stemming from the George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal, leaving that case to proceed concurrently with a criminal case against two former allies of Gov. Chris Christie.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Jose Linares left the door open for the government to refile its motion to stay the lawsuit at a later date.

The lane closures — allegedly orchestrated for retaliation against a Democratic mayor who didn't endorse Christie, a Republican, for re-election — led to criminal charges last spring against three former Christie allies.

Two of them, former Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly and former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey official Bill Baroni, are scheduled for trial next March on charges including wire fraud and deprivation of civil rights. A third, former Port Authority official David Wildstein, pleaded guilty. The Port Authority operates the bridge, which connects New Jersey and New York.

The lawsuit is a consolidation of two suits filed in early 2014 by businesses and individuals who were affected by the traffic gridlock in the town of Fort Lee. It names as defendants Baroni, Kelly and Wildstein, as well as Christie's re-election campaign organization, his former press secretary, the state of New Jersey and the Port Authority.

The U.S. attorney's office wrote in court filings last month that a delay of the lawsuit was necessary because Kelly and Baroni "could take advantage of the liberal civil discovery rules to obtain records and other information to which they are not entitled" in the criminal case.

In his ruling Monday, Linares faulted the government's motion for not going "beyond mere recitation of conclusory and broad legal arguments" in demonstrating how the criminal case could be adversely affected by the lawsuit's proceeding.

He added, however, that the government can refile its motion to delay the lawsuit at a later time, such as before the commencement of the discovery, or evidence-sharing, phase.

Linares threw out the lawsuit in June, saying the plaintiffs hadn't been specific enough about each defendant's role in the alleged scheme. But he allowed them to refile the suit, which they did in August.

He noted in his ruling Monday that the government didn't seek to intervene in the lawsuit before his June ruling, but that it was now claiming future rulings on similar motions could interfere with the criminal case.

The U.S. attorney's office declined to comment on Linares' ruling.