Experts see possible charges in NJ bridge scandal

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The George Washington Bridge traffic jam that was apparently engineered by allies of Gov. Chris Christie as political payback could lead to criminal charges such as conspiracy or official misconduct, legal experts say.

Also, those involved in the lane closings could be charged with perjury or obstruction if they lied to or misled investigators or if they produced documents after the fact that were designed to thwart an investigation.

“To me, the most plausible course for a federal criminal investigation would be to see if there’s any cover-up,” said Rutgers University law professor Stuart Green, adding that under the law, the conduct being covered up does not have to be criminal in itself.

Federal prosecutors and both houses of the state Legislature are investigating the scandal, which broke wide open last week with the release of emails and text messages suggesting that a top Christie aide ordered the lane closings in mid-September to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, who did not endorse the Republican governor for re-election.

Fort Lee officials and others complained that the four days of gridlock at the busiest bridge in the world delayed emergency vehicles, school buses and countless commuters and put people’s lives in danger.

On Wednesday, a former federal prosecutor who helped convict former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich of corruption, Reid Schar, was tapped to investigate the scandal for the state Assembly.

“A potential misuse of taxpayer resources for political purposes is a serious matter that requires an astute legal eye with experience in this realm to help guide the process,” said Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, a Democrat.

While the furor could haunt Christie’s expected run for president in 2016, there has been no evidence he had a role in the closings. But those who were involved could face conspiracy charges, according to Fordham University law professor Jim Cohen, who teaches a course in law and responsibility.

“The easiest criminal issue is conspiracy, and this was clearly a conspiracy among several people to accomplish an illegal purpose — the shutdown of the roadways not in accordance with whatever rules govern shutting down the roadways,” Cohen said. “And conspiracy is often breathtakingly easy to prove.”

New Jersey’s law on official misconduct could also be invoked, though Green said he couldn’t remember it being applied in a case like this.

The statute prohibits public servants from benefiting — or from depriving another of a benefit — through the “unauthorized exercise” of their official duties.

That statute could be applied to the bridge scandal, Green said, except that the law is usually employed in cases where there was some kind of tangible benefit, such as money.

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