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Legal woes lurk for Gov. Chris Christie over bridge traffic jam scandal

By Ben Brumfield, CNN
updated 7:09 AM EST, Fri January 10, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • New Jersey state assembly releasing 907 pages of lane closure scandal documents
  • Christie's Republican political allies may have created traffic mayhem to spite a Democrat
  • A group of citizens has filed a class-action lawsuit against Christie
  • Analyst: There may have been a crime, as a woman died amid the chaos

(CNN) -- This may turn into much more than just a political scandal.

It may have seemed like a teenage prank at the time, but the blockage of bridge traffic as a possible act of partisan political revenge has put New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in the middle of a serious legal stew.

And the fire underneath it is just beginning to heat up for the Republican presidential hopeful, as the state assembly plans to post online 907 pages of documents related to the case Friday.

State lawmakers questioned one of Christie's allies Thursday, a former state official implicated in the scandal. So far, David Wildstein has repeatedly refused to answer, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is embroiled in unfolding controversies over alleged political payback. The primary scandal involves suggestions key aides and supporters orchestrated traffic gridlock around the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee last year to punish that town's mayor for not endorsing Christie's reelection. A separate controversy involves a federal watchdog's review of whether Christie improperly used Superstorm Sandy funds to produce tourism ads starring him and his family. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is embroiled in unfolding controversies over alleged political payback. The primary scandal involves suggestions key aides and supporters orchestrated traffic gridlock around the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee last year to punish that town's mayor for not endorsing Christie's reelection. A separate controversy involves a federal watchdog's review of whether Christie improperly used Superstorm Sandy funds to produce tourism ads starring him and his family.
Who's who in Christie bridge scandal
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Aides and appointees of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have been accused of closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, pictured, for not endorsing Christie for re-election. If true, this wouldn't be the first time an American politician was targeted with dirty tricks -- the practice goes back as far as running for office. Click through to see other examples of less-than-ethical campaign tactics. Aides and appointees of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have been accused of closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, pictured, for not endorsing Christie for re-election. If true, this wouldn't be the first time an American politician was targeted with dirty tricks -- the practice goes back as far as running for office. Click through to see other examples of less-than-ethical campaign tactics.
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Quotes from Christie apology
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Can Christie survive the bridge scandal?

The legislators charged him with contempt for his lack of cooperation. But the dam could eventually break as lawmakers dig in their heels, analysts say.

As long as Christie was telling the truth at a marathon news conference he held Thursday -- that is, if he really didn't know anything about any wrongdoing -- he should be able to step out of the caldron, analysts who spoke with CNN say.

For nearly two hours, the high-profile governor, who gained national recognition for his response to Superstorm Sandy, answered questions from journalists, divulging many details.

"He was pretty specific about what he knew and when he knew it," said CNN analyst Gloria Borger on "The Lead with Jake Tapper."

But if any of it doesn't jibe with other people's stories, information provided in documents or clues that pop up, experts say Christie could get dragged into civil and criminal lawsuits.

One thing is certain. The legislative inquiry into the alleged misdeeds that led to the traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge is just getting into gear.

What happened to begin with?

It was September, and Christie was full steam into his re-election bid -- which he won two months later. Wildstein, whom Christie appointed to a high position at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, ordered the closing of two of the three lanes of traffic leading to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee. It held up motorists trying to make it into Manhattan and caused days of massive traffic jams in Fort Lee, where Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich had not endorsed Christie for re-election.

Democrats speculated that the mayhem was political retaliation against Sokolich. Hearings ensued, and Wildstein resigned under pressure. Then came Wednesday's revelation that a top Christie aide, Bridget Anne Kelly had e-mailed Wildstein before the closures, telling him, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." "Got it," Wildstein replied. He e-mailed a comment that the parents of children stuck in school buses in the traffic jams were Democratic voters.

Christie fired Kelly after the scandal broke.

Possible prank, sure, but something to sue over?

This was no fun and games for people who sat tormented for hours in traffic and missed important appointments, legal analyst Alan Dershowitz told CNN's Brooke Baldwin.

It did real damage.

"It was utter chaos those days. People were pouring into the store, complaining," Debbie Minuto recalled Thursday in her shop, Binghamton Bagel Cafe, in the town of Fort Lee. "The bridge is a lifeline here. You take away the bridge, you take away our livelihood."

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Can Christie survive the bridge scandal?

That makes it a legal matter, Dershowitz said.

"The law looks backwards and says: What causes these harms?" he said.

One group of residents from Bergen County, where Fort Lee is located, has already filed a class-action civil lawsuit against Christie. They want to be compensated for alleged wages lost when they arrived late at work.

Was a crime committed?

A woman died at the time of the mayhem, and emergency workers trying to get to her to save her complained that the traffic jams slowed them down.

Sokolich thinks there should be a criminal investigation into the incident, saying it put "folks in absolute danger."

His Democratic colleague, New Jersey state Sen. Ray Lesniak, agrees but takes it a step further. He called for federal prosecutors to open an investigation into whether the lane closures were a factor in the woman's death.

"Endangering people's lives -- that's not politics. That's why the U.S. attorneys have to get involved," he said.

U.S. Attorney's Office spokeswoman Rebekah Carmichael said it's "reviewing" whether federal laws were violated.

But Florence Genova's family doesn't seem to want to press charges.

She was 91 when she went into cardiac arrest, and her daughter Vilma Oleri told CNN affiliate WABC that she didn't think the traffic was to blame.

"I really don't think so, no, I really don't. I think she was 91 and really believe in my heart that she was already gone when the ambulance got (to her house)," she said.

But Genova was not alone. No other deaths were reported. But paramedics red-flagged "unnecessary delays for emergency services" to the mayor on the second day of the lane closures.

The traffic increased their reaction time in at least four cases.

Legal analyst Dershowitz thinks a crime may have indeed been committed and prosecutors could land convictions against Wildstein, Kelly and anyone else implicated, "particularly if they can demonstrate if the woman died as a result of the traffic jam."

Christie says he didn't know anything about this. How could this get him?

If Christie's close associates are prosecuted or convicted, it could lead them to turn on Christie, Dershowitz said.

Thursday's news conference was the longest and most candid in Christie's career, Matt Katz, a New Jersey public radio reporter, told Jake Tapper.

"This is absolutely extraordinary," he said. Christie offered a lot of information to back up his claim that he knew nothing.

At the same time, he may have given Wildstein and Kelly a lot to contradict, should they open up to lawmakers questioning them.

"They may very well want to save themselves and say, 'Wait a minute; don't believe what the governor said,' " Dershowitz told Baldwin.

Wildstein may have pleaded the Fifth initially, but that's normal in the beginning, CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin told CNN's Wolf Blitzer. Defense lawyers often start by telling their clients to take the Fifth.

"You don't want your client testifying until he has seen all the documents available."

But things could change. If lawmakers decide to go after Christie, they could offer Wildstein -- or Kelly, if they question her -- immunity.

They could decide to save themselves at his expense, Toobin said.

Anyone Christie fired may also try to get revenge.

And if Christie really didn't know about alleged misdeeds, he could still be in hot water, Dershowitz said.

"There's a concept in law called willful blindness," he said. It's enough to just suggest to people working for him to commit illegal actions on his behalf or to create an atmosphere that promotes such actions.

Dershowitz said that it would be enough for the governor to say: "Don't tell me; I don't want to know; just do what you have to do to take revenge. I don't want to know the details."

CNN's Matt Smith contributed to this report.

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