New Jersey 'Bridgegate' defendants ask for new trial

Reuters News
|
Posted: Dec 20, 2016 10:48 AM

By David Ingram

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Two former aides to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have asked a federal judge to toss out their convictions in the "Bridgegate" lane closure scandal, arguing that the jury was wrongly instructed and that prosecutors had too little evidence.

Bill Baroni, former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Bridget Kelly, the Republican governor's former deputy chief of staff, filed court papers on Monday and Tuesday in federal court in Newark, New Jersey, asking for an acquittal or a new trial. They were convicted on Nov. 4.

Baroni and Kelly were accused of shutting down access lanes to the George Washington Bridge, which the port authority calls the world's busiest span, in September 2013 in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

The blockage created massive traffic jams over a period of days that, according to prosecutors, were intended to punish the town's Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, for declining to endorse Christie's re-election campaign.

Prosecutors have not charged Christie, who has been a close associate of President-elect Donald Trump. Christie has denied having had any advance knowledge of the scheme although Kelly testified during the trial that she told him about the lane closures a month before they occurred.

A jury found Baroni and Kelly guilty on all counts, including fraud, conspiracy and depriving the residents of Fort Lee of their civil rights.

In court papers on Tuesday, Kelly's lawyer faulted U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton for telling jurors in response to a question that they could convict for conspiracy even if the act itself was not "intentionally punitive toward Mayor Sokolich."

The instruction meant that prosecutors did not have to prove motive, although their case had revolved around the alleged political retribution.

"The court's answer was a misstatement of the law, constructively amended the indictment and denied Ms. Kelly her constitutional right to a unanimous jury verdict," her attorney, Michael Critchley, wrote.

A spokesman for New Jersey's chief federal prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, declined to comment.

Baroni's attorneys gave separate reasons for an acquittal or new trial in court papers filed on Monday. They said that prosecutors, searching for a law that would apply in an unusual case, took too broad a reading of a statute that makes it a crime to "misapply" Port Authority property with a value of at least $5,000.

The scandal damaged Christie politically. A Quinnipiac University poll released this month found that 77 percent of respondents in New Jersey disapproved of the once-popular Christie's job performance.

(Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Will Dunham)