TRENTON — A judge has allowed an official misconduct complaint against Gov. Chris Christie over his role in the Bridgegate scandal to proceed, but top criminal defense attorneys and former prosecutors say it’s tough to predict what happens next because those who handle such matters have been appointed by the governor.
“This is a mess, because the road ahead is fraught with political peril and conflict of interest,” said Stanley M. Brand, a former general counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives who later represented the late U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Illinois) in his 1994 federal mail fraud trial.
On Thursday, Municipal Presiding Judge Roy McGeady allowed a complaint by a retired Teaneck firefighter and citizen activist, Bill Brennan, to proceed.
Brennan’s complaint alleges that the governor knew of the September 2013 closures of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge while they were ongoing but failed to act to reopen them.
But before an investigation of whether Christie can be charged with official misconduct, the thorny questions of conflict of interest must be addressed.
It was referred to Gurbir Grewal a Christie appointee whom the governor only last month re-nominated to serve as acting Bergen County Prosecutor. As such, Grewal serves at the pleasure of the governor.
“They would normally send a case like this to the attorney general’s office,” said Joseph Hayden, a partner in a former deputy state attorney general and special prosecutor who is now a partner at the law firm of PashmanStein in Hackensack.
But the problem there, Hayden said, is finding “anybody who’s not been appointed or hired by Christie.”
The state attorney general, Christopher Porrino, was recently confirmed, but is also Christie’s former chief counsel.
“It’s uncharted territory,” said Brand.
Henry Asbill, the attorney who successfully got the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell on federal corruption charges vacated in the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year, called the situation a “tangled web.”
“You could get somebody from out of state, or get the state Supreme Court to get together and appoint an independent prosecutor,” said Asbell.
That would not be without precedent, notes Hayden.
In 1972, New Jersey’s Secretary of State Paul Sherwin was indicted on bribery and bid-rigging charges, and the state attorney general at the time, George Kugler, appointed a former federal prosecutor to oversee the case on the recommendation of New Jersey State Supreme Court Chief Justice Weintraub.
Sherwin was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison.
Gregory P. Craig, who served as White House counsel to President Barack Obama from 2009-2010 and represented ex-Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman in his unsuccessful appeal against felony corruption charges in 2015, puts the conflict conundrum more simply.
“It’s New Jersey, man,” Craig said.
Asbill, who lived in the Garden State from 1986 to 1988 to defend Antony Accetturo, the 49-year-old reputed leader of the Luchese crime family in New Jersey, said the state Legislature could pass a bill requiring the court appoint an independent counsel, although he said that would likely be vetoed by the governor.
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), the Senate Majority Leader, told NJ Advance Media on Thursday she anticipated the Bergen prosecutor to recuse himself and the attorney general to do the same.
She said that while she was considering legislation requiring a special prosecutor, but said that for now, “we are all waiting to see what step number two is.”