NEWARK, N.J. – A judge on Thursday barred two former allies of Gov. Chris Christie charged in the George Washington Bridge lane-closing case from gaining access to the cellphone he used as the scandal unfolded, a ruling that settled, if only temporarily, a dispute that has become acrimonious in recent months.
U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton granted a motion by the law firm representing Christie’s office to quash a subpoena by Bill Baroni and Bridget Kelly, who face trial in the fall on charges they conspired to close lanes to create traffic jams in 2013 to punish a Democratic mayor for not endorsing Christie. Christie hasn’t been charged.
Baroni, a former high-ranking Christie appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, contend the Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher law firm didn’t produce relevant documents as required by a government subpoena, including records from Christie’s phone.
The phone is relevant because a former aide said she texted with the governor during testimony by bridge officials to a legislative committee, they say. The texts were later deleted.
Thursday’s nearly two-hour hearing shed no light on the unanswered question of the phone’s whereabouts.
Christie has claimed he “gave it to the government” some time ago and wasn’t sure where it was; the U.S. attorney’s office said it never had the phone; and Gibson Dunn said it “returned” the phone after reviewing its contents in response to a government subpoena. Christie declined to answer a question about it last week.
When Wigenton asked whether Christie’s phone was searched, Gibson Dunn attorney Randy Mastro replied it was searched “in co-ordination with a forensic firm.” He didn’t say who has the phone now or how information retrieved from the phone was stored.
“What we’re not clear on is exactly what Gibson Dunn did when they had the cellphone,” attorney Michael Baldassare, representing Baroni, said afterward. “Did they make a copy and give it back to the attorneys? Did they give a copy to the governor? They’ve been very cagy on that.”
Baldassare said he and attorney Michael Critchley, representing Kelly, would issue individual subpoenas to Christie, former aide Regina Egea and others in his office for their phones and personal devices before a scheduled September trial.
While Wigenton ruled the material sought by Baroni and Kelly went beyond the scope of what was originally intended in the subpoena, she left room for the defence to file additional challenges to specific documents Gibson Dunn has claimed are privileged because they concern official government business.
Mastro characterized the defendants’ quest for the personal devices as “a general fishing expedition” and asked the judge, “Would you like to have your personal cellphone turned over, with your most personal, private information, to some lawyer? It’s so beyond the pale.”
Critchley assailed Gibson Dunn’s 2014 investigation into the lane closures, a probe that absolved Christie of wrongdoing, as a shoddy exercise that didn’t interview key players and didn’t press Christie or Egea about the text messages.
“We call into question the legitimacy of the investigation and of these individuals now being the arbiters of relevancy” concerning the subpoena, he told Wigenton. Mastro called the focus on the 2014 probe “an attempt to turn this trial into a sideshow” and “a lot of smoke and mirrors.”
Thursday’s hearing came as Christie was being vetted as a potential running mate for presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, according to people with direct knowledge of the vetting process who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the situation publicly.
The defence attorneys have accused Gibson Dunn of deliberately destroying interview notes and withholding relevant evidence, charges Mastro has called “scurrilous,” ”defamatory” and evidence of a strategy that “reeks of desperation.”
Both Baroni, a former Port Authority executive, and Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, have pleaded not guilty.
Associated Press writer Steve Peoples contributed to this story.
This story has been corrected to fix the last name of Bridget Kelly on the first reference. It’s Kelly, not Kelley.