By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) – A New Jersey judge on Friday declined to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate a citizen’s criminal complaint against Governor Chris Christie over the “Bridgegate” lane-closure scandal, saying private citizens do not have the legal standing to make such a request.
The ruling from Judge Bonnie Mizdol, the top judge in Bergen County, New Jersey, ensures that the county prosecutor’s office will maintain jurisdiction over the complaint filed by Bill Brennan, a retired firefighter and activist known for filing numerous lawsuits against state officials.
Brennan had argued that an independent prosecutor was needed to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, since Christie appoints the state attorney general as well as each county’s top prosecutor.
The official misconduct complaint accuses Christie of knowing about a plot to close down lanes at the George Washington Bridge in 2013 as an act of political payback to punish a local mayor for refusing to endorse his reelection bid.
Two former Christie allies were convicted last month of federal charges at trial for orchestrating the plan.
The governor has denied any involvement or wrongdoing and has not been charged in the case, but U.S. prosecutors presented evidence at the trial that Christie was at least aware of the lane closures at the time they occurred.
The scandal’s fallout helped scuttle Christie’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Christie, an early supporter of President-elect Donald Trump, was once seen as a potential cabinet appointee before the conviction of his former associates generated a new round of negative attention.
Brennan filed the complaint in Fort Lee municipal court, where the lane closures occurred. In October, a different New Jersey judge referred the complaint to prosecutors to determine whether enough evidence exists to support criminal charges against Christie.
Both the state attorney general and the Bergen County prosecutor have recused themselves from the case. But Brennan argued their subordinates should also be removed from the process.
In an eight-page decision, Mizdol said she was “mindful of the heightened concern for conflict when a governor is facing criminal prosecution by the very state he is tasked to govern.” But she said Brennan, as a civilian, could not legally challenge prosecutorial decisions about criminal cases.
In an email, Brennan said the judge’s decision was “an act of judicial cowardice” and promised to continue pursuing Christie, adding that “this is not over.”
A Christie spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Tom Brown)