In September of 2013, a small number of highly-paid government employees from New Jersey–men and women close to Chris Christie, the state’s governor running for re-election and aspiring to be a presidential candidate–tied up traffic at the entrance of the George Washington Bridge to New York, the busiest interstate crossing in the nation. Those employees didn’t want you to know the purpose of the tie-up or who caused it. Now, three years later, another small group of people–including a federal judge, the US Attorney and defense lawyers are still trying to keep the truth about what has come to be known as Bridgegate from the residents of New Jersey and the rest of the nation.
That judge, Susan D. Wigenton, US Attorney Paul Fishman, and the defense lawyers certainly do not have the same motivation to hide the truth as did Christie and his men and women. But the result is the same and, perhaps, so are their attitudes about pubic disclosure: They don’t think people have the right to know.
So, in the last few days, defense attorneys Michael Critchley and Michael Baldassare filed a motion for mistrial and redacted the entire motion. The prosecution, directed by US Attorney, also asked that the government answer’s be sealed. All the lawyers have been subjected to gag orders. The lawyers met in court with the judge at least a half-dozen times but refused to open the courtroom doors to spectators and the press. What the participants said in those secret meetings has been placed under seal. A reporter, knowing full well criminal trials are public in this nation, sought to gain entrance and was threatened with eviction by an armed officer.
All of this was done at the direction or approval of Judge Wigenton–without notice and without public explanation.
All of this makes a mockery of the Constitution–the way Christie and his men and women made a mockery of concerns about public safety at the bridge in 2013 .
“There can be no dispute that the Court is also constitutionally obligated to keep proceedings transparent and open to public view or provide specific reasons for sealing documents or the courtroom that pass constitutional muster,” wrote Bruce Rosen, an attorney for a coalition of media outlets trying to reverse Judge Wigenton’s extraordinary rulings.
The law, as the judge must know, is settled. “The public has both a First Amendment and a common law right of access to judicial proceedings and records,” Rosen wrote.
If the judge had a reason to turn an American court into the Star Chamber, then she has a responsibility to explain why. So far, Judge Wigenton has said nothing and has not even provided Rosen with a hearing to press his views on behalf, not just of media outlets, but of the public’s right to know.
In cases like this one, where the trial is about the conduct of the highest public officials in the state–officials with aspirations to national office–then the public’s right to know is “even stronger,” Rosen argued.
Bridgegate is about the effort of government officials to hurt thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of people to advance Chris Christie’s political ambitions. Everyone can understand why Christie would want to hide the facts from the public that entrusted him with the public welfare he so flagrantly imperiled. No one can understand why a judge would want to hide the facts.
This is hardly an isolated incident. It is part of a pattern of contempt for the public’s right to know and the media’s right of access. The courts and the government together have hidden information from the public–specifically the names of all the others, including unindicted co-conspirators, who certainly should have been called, if not to the dock, then at least to the witness stand. Or, at the very least, identified.
As those following the case know, Fishman, the US Attorney–a position Christie held from 2002 to 2009–chose to indict only two persons for the grievous assault on the people of New Jersey–Bill Baroni, the deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff. After six weeks of trial, Baroni and Kelly are awaiting the jury’s decision.
However, evidence introduced at trial–and, most likely, available to Fishman–showed many others knew and may have been directly involved in the planning, execution, and cover-up of the bridge lane closures–including men and women who served with Christie in the US Attorney’s office and went on, thanks to his good graces, to hold important positions in state government, including judgeships.
In addition, the taxpayers of New Jersey will spend at least $12 million in public funds on a whitewash, known as the Mastro Report, that had one clear intention–hiding the truth and perfuming Christie’s corrosive political ambitions.
To all of that now has been added this incomprehensible series of decisions by Judge Wigenton. Far more was expected of the judge at this trial. Of any judge.
What of Bridgegate is buried under the loose dirt of prosecutorial discretion, outright lying by government employees, and the Byzantine twists of this trial will continue to rot and reek to high heaven long after the jury returns its verdict. Eventually the truth will come out–but, by the time it does, it’s likely few, if anyone, will care.
“This is one of the highest-profile trials of public officials in state history and it continues to draw national attention,” Rosen wrote to Judge Wigenton. “It is essential to public confidence in the integrity of the judicial system that the public be able to fully understand and discuss the issues at stake as to the conduct of this trial.”
Integrity. Now there’s a concept.