He might be the man who brings down a governor: Alan Zegas, the lawyer for Bridgegate operative David Wildstein. Not because Zegas is political, because Zegas is not. Not because Zegas wants to expose and dethrone the naked emperor, because that is not the way Zegas operates. Personally and professionally, Zegas is the anti-Christie—a modest, principled, highly intelligent, hard-working, decent man. But his target isn’t Christie. His target is the best deal for his client, no matter what the consequences for the governor. And that could mean Wildstein’s testimony against his old pal from high school.
Zegas, of course, wrote the letter charging that Christie lied when the governor said he didn’t know about the George Washington Bridge lane closures until after they ended.
“Evidence exists…tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the governor stated publicly in a two-hour press conference (Jan. 9).”
Zegas also said that Wildstein would cooperate fully in the Bridgegate investigation –if his client receives immunity from prosecution.
He is one of the most prominent criminal defense lawyers in New Jersey, although he probably would not call himself that. But there are reasons the New Jersey Institute of Continuing Legal Education (ICLE) hires him every year to conduct a comprehensive seminar on criminal law. There is a reason veteran lawyers come to learn more. He knows his stuff.
A lot of criminal defense lawyers know their stuff. Zegas also has a sense of integrity that lands him in places one would not expect to find a high-profile criminal defense attorney. His defense, for example, of a young, African-American female lawyer ordered jailed by a bizarrely behaving municipal court judge is a good example.
Zegas didn’t completely win that one. Many criminal defense lawyers lose cases, it’s the nature of the beast. What I remember most is how personally troubled he was by the way the judge treated the lawyer, Rashidah Hassan. Zegas believes in justice. He believes in fair play. He believes everyone deserves respect. Yes, I am sure he makes a lot of money doing what he does but he brings enormous value to the profession he serves, to the civil society he works to protect.
The case that led me to meet Zegas in the mid-1990s is an excellent example of how Zegas works and thinks. John Martini, a multiple murderer, was convicted of the
kidnap-murder of businessman Irving Flax and sentenced to death. His court-appointed lawyers tried to save him from the death penalty but Martini said he no longer wanted to continue trying to stay away from the death chamber. The court appointed Zegas to represent Martini in his quest to die and Zegas accepted the appointment.
I interviewed Zegas and learned he opposed the death penalty—as many criminal defense lawyers do. I remember he said, “It tore at me—I couldn’t sleep.” He believed the death penalty was wrong but, yes, he also believed Martini deserved to be represented the way he wanted to be. Later, Martini changed his mind. Then capital punishment was ended in New Jersey. Martini died of natural causes in prison. I’ve always believed Zegas gently talked Martini out of wanting to die at the hands of the state.
Martini was hardly Zegas’s first involvement in a high profile case. He defended one of the four young Glen Ridge men charged in the sexual assault case that was to be depicted in the book and movie “Our Guys.” Zegas’s client, Bryant Grober, was convicted of only one count of conspiracy.
Zegas moves through some of the most controversial criminal issues with grace and determination. He won dismissal of the charges in the bizarre Margaret Kelly Michaels child-abuse case and helped forever change the law and practice about interrogating young children who claim to have been assaulted by their teachers.
His reputation was enhanced by the 1999 trial of David Ford. Ford, a third-grade teacher in Flroham Park, was charged with 27 counts of sexual assault on 12 children. Zegas made no secret of wanting Ford to plead because the odds of acquittal were so daunting. Ford could have been spared a jail sentence if he agreed to one reduced count—but Ford refused and Zegas stuck with this client.
“He told me he’d never plead guilty to something he hadn’t done, even if it meant going to jail,” Zegas says. “I believed him.”
I covered that trial and witnessed every day Zegas’s careful, studied approach to courtroom practice. The trial was a minefield. He had to cross examine children and show to the jury just how absurd their accusations were—without ridiculing or intimidating the little boys and girls. His client, 60 and ill, would have faced virtual life imprisonment if convicted of even one count.
His investigatory work was extraordinary. He learned, for example, that the mother of the first child to accuse Ford of molesting had been taking courses on how to persuade children to open up about possible sexual assault cases—and that the child had been angry with Ford because the teacher refused to support her in an argument with her parents about summer camp.
Also in 1999, he helped defend Jackie Mattison, an assemblyman and chief of staff to former Newark Mayor Sharpe James against corruption charges. Mattison was convicted but the case was important for a number of reasons. It was a dress rehearsal for a much bigger case that would follow—with a new federal prosecutor, Chris Christie. It demonstrated the lengths to which federal prosecutors might go in torturing the definitions of law to get indictments—even the judge had questions. Finally, it revealed Zegas’s ability to deal with complicated criminal litigation involving thousands of documents.
The other shoe dropped nine years later when James, now out of office, was indicted. Zegas served as co-counsel with Thomas Ashley. The trial resulted in his conviction, but for what? Here’s an archive of my columns about the 2008 trial. The original charges combined alleged misuse of city credit cards with a more lurid narrative—the contention that he helped a young woman, Tamika Riley, buy abandoned houses from the city, redevelop them and then sell them at market value. The credit card charges were separated and James was tried only on the housing controversy.
But the prosecution never showed what benefit, if any, James received, beyond an insinuaton of sexual favors. Never showed that Riley received special consideration—every person paid the same $2,000 for the city-owned properties. And, when the trial was over, the prosecution proved it was out for political vengeance when it sought a 20-year jail term—that ignited anger from Judge William Martini. James got 27 months.
“In six years on the bench, I’ve never seen a housing fraud involving so little money,” Martini said. “I’ve never had a tax fraud case for so little money.”
Until his recent letter on behalf of Wildstein, Zegas’s most famous collision with Christie occurred in 2010, but it was indirect. He took on as a client special education teacher Alissa Ploshnick who was secretly filmed by a right-wing organization. A man, who did not reveal he was recording the conversation over drinks, taped her bragging about tenure protections. She made the comments at an East Brunswick hotel during a teachers’ union conference. The film was entitled “Teachers Unions Run Wild” and received extensive play over YouTube and right-wing websites.
Christie, then in the midst of his relentless attacks on teachers and their unions, piled on, praising the stealth recordings and saying, “If you need an example of what I’ve been talking about for the last nine months — about how the teachers union leadership is out of touch with the people and out of control — go watch this video.’’
What Christie didn’t care about was that, three years earlier, Ploshnick had thrown herself between an out-of-control van and a dozen Passaic school children, saving their lives and ending up in the hospital with multiple bone fractures. Zegas made sure the teacher could keep her job after the furor created by the attack film praised by Christie. He also kept the rightwing nuts away from her.
Now Zegas is defending someone else caught up in the strange world made by the Christie tenure in New Jersey. Wildstein is not an especially sympathetic character. But that’s not the point.
The point is that Alan Zegas could do the right thing for his client and also bring down a governor who is not known for doing the right thing.