Bridge case defendants ask judge to throw out case

AP News
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Posted: Feb 02, 2016 8:04 AM

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The criminal charges in the George Washington Bridge lane-closing case should be thrown out because they are based on vague federal laws that have been twisted to fit the facts of the case, two former allies of Gov. Chris Christie wrote in separate court filings late Monday.

Attorneys for Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni took turns taking swings at the government's case in filings that, combined, surpassed 100 pages. Kelly's lawyer wrote that the case is "an indictment in search of a crime;" Baroni's attorney accused the government of using "tortured legal theory."

Kelly, Christie's deputy chief of staff at the time of the lane closures in September 2013, and Baroni, a former state senator and top Christie appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, were indicted last spring on wire fraud, civil rights and other counts.

Another former Port Authority official, David Wildstein, pleaded guilty and is expected to testify for the government.

Christie, currently a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, wasn't charged and has denied any knowledge of the alleged scheme until well afterward. A trial has been pushed back to mid-May, when most of the primaries will have been concluded.

Baroni and Kelly are accused of purposely closing two of three access lanes from the town of Fort Lee to the bridge in order to create traffic jams to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, for not endorsing the Republican Christie for re-election. Traffic around the bridge, which is the busiest in the country, was gridlocked for hours on four consecutive days.

Later, Baroni told a New Jersey legislative committee the lane closures were part of a traffic study — a blatant fabrication, according to the indictment.

Attorney Michael Baldassare, representing Baroni, wrote that the charges against him should be dismissed precisely because they are based partly on the testimony to the committee, which was given under immunity.

"Whatever tortured legal theory the prosecution will offer in its own defense, the use of Mr. Baroni's testimony before the New Jersey Legislature was and is inappropriate," Baldassare wrote. "As discussed in Section II, the use of Mr. Baroni's immunized testimony warrants dismissal of the Indictment in its entirety."

Both defendants claim the government stretched federal laws to fit the conduct alleged in the indictment. They are charged with intentionally misapplying Port Authority property, i.e., the bridge, and with conspiring to deprive local residents of their constitutional rights to intrastate travel.

Michael Critchley, representing Kelly, wrote that the first law has been used almost exclusively to prosecute public employees for theft or bribery. Civil rights laws, he argued, have never been applied to the intentional causing of traffic.

"There has been no other federal criminal case that has been prosecuted anywhere, at any time, with facts even remotely similar to the facts there," he wrote.

Baroni's filing also claims that prosecutors haven't turned over potentially exculpatory evidence as required by law, particularly from the law firm hired by Christie at taxpayer expense to investigate the lane closures. The firm's report in early 2014 exonerated Christie but also found no evidence Baroni was involved in the alleged scheme.

Prosecutors have until Feb. 24 to respond, and the defendants will have a chance to file a reply a few weeks after that, before a judge rules on the motion.