Skip to main content

A Chris Christie prosecution would be political dynamite

By Paul Callan, CNN Legal Analyst
updated 10:11 AM EST, Mon January 13, 2014
HIDE CAPTION
Quotes from Christie apology
Quotes from Christie apology
Quotes from Christie apology
Quotes from Christie apology
Quotes from Christie apology
Quotes from Christie apology
Quotes from Christie apology
Quotes from Christie apology
Quotes from Christie apology
Quotes from Christie apology
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Paul Callan: Prosecutors are loath to charge a powerful political figure
  • He says it's unlikely that Chris Christie left his fingerprints on the bridge issue
  • The rule is that if you charge a powerful figure, you'd better be able to win the case, he says
  • Callan: Prosecutors will be wary of perception that they are on a political witch hunt

Editor's note: Paul Callan is a former New York homicide prosecutor and a senior partner at Callan, Koster, Brady and Brennan, LLP. He is a CNN legal contributor. Follow him on Twitter: @PaulCallan.

(CNN) -- A very wise district attorney once gave a piece of pragmatic advice to a young assistant prosecutor investigating a prominent political figure. The case involved evidence that could possibly support a criminal indictment yet was unlikely to result in a conviction. That DA's advice to his young assistant: "If you are going to shoot at the king, you'd better be able to kill the king."

The wisdom of that literary caveat, self-evident to those who pursue the powerful, is particularly relevant to the Gov. Chris Christie scandal involving traffic delays at the George Washington Bridge.

In the days and weeks to come, prosecutors with potential jurisdiction over a criminal investigation of Christie and his political acolytes regarding the agonizing traffic tie-up -- and a possible subsequent cover-up -- will be carefully screening the evidence. They would be wise to consider the pragmatic advice about king-slaying, which has been quietly observed by sensible prosecutors for years.

Paul Callan
Paul Callan

Three prosecutors have potential jurisdiction: Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.; Bergen County, New Jersey, Prosecutor John Molinelli; and U. S. Attorney Paul Fishman, the man who replaced Christie as New Jersey's federal prosecutor.

Opinion: A lesson for Chris Christie from Richard Nixon

Vance is a Democrat, known for nonpartisanship. Molinelli was appointed Bergen County prosecutor by Christie's predecessor, a Democrat. And Fishman is the appointee of a Democratic president with the blessing of New Jersey's two U.S. senators, both Democrats.

All three prosecutors enjoy reputations for fairness and integrity in the conduct of their offices, but it would be a deft trick for each of the three to reassure residents of New York, New Jersey and the nation that any investigation (and possible prosecutions) will be free of political influence.

Though Vance may have a shred of a right to prosecute (because the bridge touches land in New York County), I suspect he is wise enough to know that his Manhattan DA's Office has no business interfering in this Jersey mess.

Did Christie misuse Sandy aid money?
Fmr. Gov. Richardson on bridge scandal
Christie apologizes for bridge vendetta
Kean: Christie has a lot to give

Molinelli, though, has more legitimate concerns -- the individuals most affected were those living in the Bergen County towns he serves. There is even a New Jersey criminal statute entitled "Official Misconduct" relating to the abuse of governmental authority by public servants for personal gain that may be relevant to the bridge brouhaha.

As a lame duck prosecutor appointed by Christie's predecessor, Democrat John Corzine, Molinelli will face heavy scrutiny if he tries to slay the king -- in this case, the governor.

Enter Fishman, the U.S. attorney and potential white knight. Though a registered Democrat appointed by President Barack Obama, he was sworn into office by Justice Samuel Alito, a conservative icon.

Opinion: Christie's bogus 'stages of grief'

Fishman has sterling credentials and a reputation for fairness. He's vowed since 2009 to keep politics out of his powerful office and to depoliticize it after many prosecutions by his predecessor were criticized as having been political in nature. That predecessor? Chris Christie.

The legal bloodlines of this case are more mixed than the contents of a Meadowlands landfill. Fishman, as the ranking Fed, can force local Jersey prosecutors out of the ring through a variety of tactics, if he chooses to do so. Bergen's Molinelli could insist on proceeding -- but, in the face of a potentially more serious federal intervention, most local prosecutors would back off.

Why would the locals defer to Fishman? The answer is entirely pragmatic. These prosecutors have to work together on many overlapping cases as they each seek to round up New Jersey's notorious collection of bad guys. And a local DA generally defers to a federal prosecutor who can supersede him in a variety of ways. Politics and pragmatism enters every field in our system, even criminal prosecutions.

Given Christie's political prominence -- both in New Jersey and nationwide -- you are certain to see, in coming days and weeks, a steady stream of information discreetly leaked to news media regarding ongoing criminal and civil investigations.

Though Christie will endure potentially embarrassing legislative hearings, predictable federal subpoenas, and possible damage to his promising presidential candidacy, I think it's safe to say the governor will not be indicted. There is a greater downside to that scenario: Voters may be convinced it is indeed a political witch hunt intended to cripple a leading presidential candidate.

Despite some titillating hints from insiders, the bulk of evidence relating to the bridge fiasco probably remains undisclosed.

Christie, as a former prosecutor, is far too smart to have left his fingerprints or interoffice "DNA" on any specifics of the bridge fiasco.

Even if a former aide or political pal testifies against the governor as part of a prosecutorial deal, most jurors would want to see corroboration. Nobody likes a snitch, even a political one. The case will look like a political hatchet job and the wounded, angry "king" may strike back with political vengeance. The public will doubt the integrity of the prosecutor destroying his reputation.

Opinion: Christie's choice -- Be seen as a crook or a schnook?

More of his political aides may fall as the search for scapegoats continues, but the governor will not be taken away in handcuffs. Why? Because as that wise prosecutor once said, "If you are going to shoot at the king, you'd better be able to kill the king."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Callan

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT