Judge: New Jersey citizen's 'Bridgegate' complaint against Christie can proceed

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PRINCETON, N.J., Oct 13 (Reuters) - A citizen's complaint against New Jersey Governor Chris Christie related to the "Bridgegate" lane-closure scandal can move forward, a judge ruled on Thursday, referring the case to state prosecutors to consider possible criminal charges.

Roy McGeady, the presiding judge for Bergen County municipal courts, found probable cause for the criminal complaint filed last month by Bill Brennan, an activist and retired firefighter, a court official confirmed.

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The complaint of official misconduct accused Christie of knowing about a plot to close down lanes at the George Washington Bridge as an act of political payback. The governor has repeatedly denied any prior knowledge of the closures, which created massive traffic jams in northern New Jersey.

The ruling ratchets up the political pressure on Christie, who became a major supporter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump after dropping his own White House bid and now heads his White House transition team.

The controversy surrounding the scandal, which has resulted in criminal charges against two of Christie's associates, helped scuttle his bid for the Republican presidential nomination and has eroded the governor's approval ratings in New Jersey.

The misconduct case now moves to the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office, which will decide whether enough evidence exists to support a criminal charge. "The office has no comment at this time," spokeswoman Maureen Parenta said in an email.

Brennan filed the complaint in municipal court in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where Christie allies were accused of deliberately causing a massive traffic jam in September 2013 by closing access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in order to punish the town's mayor. The bridge is a major link to New York City.

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Christie 'Bridgegate' press conference and aftermath
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Christie 'Bridgegate' press conference and aftermath
Jeffrey Immelt, chairman and CEO of General Electric, left, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie participate in the morning session of the National Governor's Association Winter Meeting in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 31: Howard Stern, Jimmy Kimmel and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie attend "Howard Stern's Birthday Bash" presented by SiriusXM, produced by Howard Stern Productions at Hammerstein Ballroom on January 31, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for SiriusXM)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 31: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Jon Bon Jovi attend 'Howard Stern's Birthday Bash' presented by SiriusXM, produced by Howard Stern Productions at Hammerstein Ballroom on January 31, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for SiriusXM)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie waits for the start of a ceremony to pass official hosting duties of next year's Super Bowl to representatives from Arizona, Saturday Feb. 1, 2014 in New York. Fellow Republicans are assessing the damage of new allegations that Gov. Christie knew about a traffic-blocking operation orchestrated by top aides.(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, center, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, right, display different reactions as Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, left, speaks during a ceremony to pass official hosting duties of next year's Super Bowl to Arizona, Saturday Feb. 1, 2014 in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during a ceremony to pass official hosting duties of next year's Super Bowl to representatives from Arizona, Saturday Feb. 1, 2014 in New York. Fellow Republicans are assessing the damage of new allegations that Gov. Christie knew about a traffic-blocking operation orchestrated by top aides. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie waits for the start of a ceremony to pass official hosting duties of next year's Super Bowl to representatives from Arizona, Saturday Feb. 1, 2014 in New York. Fellow Republicans are assessing the damage of new allegations that Gov. Christie knew about a traffic-blocking operation orchestrated by top aides. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivers his State Of The State address at the Statehouse, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, in Trenton, N.J. Faced with a widening political scandal that threatens to undermine his second term and a possible 2016 presidential run, Christie apologized again Tuesday, saying his administration "let down the people we are entrusted to serve" but that the issue doesn't define his team or the state. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie arrives to deliver his State Of The State address at the Statehouse, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, in Trenton, N.J.Faced with a widening political scandal that threatens to undermine his second term and a possible 2016 presidential run, Christie apologized again Tuesday, saying his administration "let down the people we are entrusted to serve" but that the issue doesn't define his team or the state. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivers his State Of The State address at the Statehouse, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, in Trenton, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, center right, delivers his State Of The State address at the Statehouse, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, in Trenton, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivers his State Of The State address at the Statehouse, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, in Trenton, N.J. Christie apologized again Tuesday, saying his administration ?let down the people we are entrusted to serve? but that it doesn?t define his team or the state. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivers his State Of The State address at the Statehouse, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, in Trenton, N.J. Christie apologized again Tuesday, saying his administration ?let down the people we are entrusted to serve? but that it doesn?t define his team or the state. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, second left, arrives at Fort Lee, N.J., City Hall, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. Christie traveled to Fort Lee to apologize in person to Mayor Mark Sokolich. Moving quickly to contain a widening political scandal, Gov. Chris Christie fired one of his top aides Thursday and apologized repeatedly for the "abject stupidity" of his staff, insisting he had no idea anyone around him had engineered traffic jams to get even with a Democratic mayor. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
FORT LEE, NJ - JANUARY 09: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie enters the Borough Hall in Fort Lee to apologize to Mayor Mark Sokolich on January 9, 2014 in Fort Lee, New Jersey. According to reports Christie's Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly is accused of giving a signal to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge, allegedly as punishment for the Fort Lee, New Jersey mayor not endorsing the Governor during the election. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
FORT LEE, NJ - JANUARY 09: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie leaves the Borough Hall in Fort Lee where he apologized to Mayor Mayor Mark Sokolich on January 9, 2014 in Fort Lee, New Jersey. According to reports Christie's Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly is accused of giving a signal to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge, allegedly as punishment for the Fort Lee, New Jersey mayor not endorsing the Governor during the election. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Governor Chris Christie talks to a reporter following a visit to Fort Lee Borough Hall Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, in Fort Lee, N.J. to apologize to Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich about the governor's staff allegedly closing lanes to the George Washington Bridge last September. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
TRENTON, NJ - JANUARY 9: David Wildstein (R) former director of interstate capital projects for the Port Authority and his attorney Alan Zegas (L) is sworn in to testify at a hearing held by the Assembly Transportation Committee January 9, 2014 in Trenton, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. The committee has subpoenaed David Wildstein former director of interstate capital projects for the Port Authority to testify about the agency's decision to temporarily close some access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee in September 2013. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during a news conference Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 at the Statehouse in Trenton. N.J. Christie has fired a top aide who engineered political payback against a town mayor, saying she lied. Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly is the latest casualty in a widening scandal that threatens to upend Christie's second term and likely run for president in 2016. Documents show she arranged traffic jams to punish the mayor, who didn't endorse Christie for re-election. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during a news conference Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, at the Statehouse in Trenton, N.J. Christie has fired a top aide who engineered political payback against a town mayor, saying she lied. Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly is the latest casualty in a widening scandal that threatens to upend Christie's second term and likely run for president in 2016. Documents show she arranged traffic jams to punish the mayor, who didn't endorse Christie for re-election. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during a news conference Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, at the Statehouse in Trenton, N.J. Christie has fired a top aide who engineered political payback against a town mayor, saying she lied. Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly is the latest casualty in a widening scandal that threatens to upend Christie's second term and likely run for president in 2016. Documents show she arranged traffic jams to punish the mayor, who didn't endorse Christie for re-election. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie walks to the podium before a news conference Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, at the Statehouse in Trenton, N.J. Christie has fired a top aide who engineered political payback against a town mayor, saying she lied. Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly is the latest casualty in a widening scandal that threatens to upend Christie's second term and likely run for president in 2016. Documents show she arranged traffic jams to punish the mayor, who didn't endorse Christie for re-election. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during a news conference Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, at the Statehouse in Trenton, N.J. Christie has fired a top aide who engineered political payback against a town mayor, saying she lied. Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly is the latest casualty in a widening scandal that threatens to upend Christie's second term and likely run for president in 2016. Documents show she arranged traffic jams to punish the mayor, who didn't endorse Christie for re-election. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during a news conference Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, at the Statehouse in Trenton, N.J. Christie has fired a top aide who engineered political payback against a town mayor, saying she lied. Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly is the latest casualty in a widening scandal that threatens to upend Christie's second term and likely run for president in 2016. Documents show she arranged traffic jams to punish the mayor, who didn't endorse Christie for re-election. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
In a Monday, Sept. 2, 2013 photo, traffic moves across the George Washington Bridge, in Fort Lee, N.J. A top aide to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is linked through emails and text messages to a seemingly deliberate plan to create traffic gridlock in a town at the base of the bridge after its mayor refused to endorse Christie for re-election. "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Christie aide Bridget Anne Kelly wrote in an Aug. 13 email to David Wildstein, a top political appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the George Washington Bridge connecting New Jersey and New York City. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
A car uses an onramp to the George Washington Bridge toll plaza in Fort Lee, N.J., Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. The onramp was closed for three days in September 2013 snarling traffic at one of the world's busiest bridges, which links New Jersey and New York City. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie faces political fallout over the traffic jam that caused hours-long backups for commuters and others as children started the school year.(AP Photo/Richard Drew)
Capitol Hill reporters watch a news conference with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie while waiting for House John Boehner's of Ohio news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. Boehner said he believes Gov. Chris Christie remains a serious contender for the Republican 2016 presidential nomination, despite the traffic jam scandal engulfing the New Jersey governor.
This June 12, 2013 photo released by NBC shows host Jimmy Fallon, right, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Chistie during a taping of "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," in New York. (AP Photo/NBC, Lloyd Bishop)
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The two Christie associates - his former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, and former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey executive Bill Baroni - have been on trial in federal court in Newark, New Jersey, for their alleged roles in the scandal.

Brennan's complaint was based on testimony from David Wildstein, another Port Authority executive who pleaded guilty in the case and has been cooperating with prosecutors, that Christie was aware of the lane closures at the time.

A Christie spokesman, Brian Murray, said the governor would appeal the ruling immediately.

"This is a dishonorable complaint filed by a known serial complainant and political activist with a history of abusing the judicial system," Murray said. "The simple fact is the governor had no knowledge of the lane realignments either before they happened or while they were happening. This matter has already been thoroughly investigated by three separate independent investigations."

Brennan has filed numerous complaints, as well as lawsuits, against various officials in New Jersey over the years.

Federal prosecutors have accused Kelly, Baroni and Wildstein of orchestrating the lane closures to send a message to Fort Lee Mayor Michael Sokolich after the Democrat refused to endorse Christie's 2013 gubernatorial re-election campaign.

At the time, Christie was already eyeing a White House run, and his advisers believed a show of bipartisan support would help enhance his national standing.

Christie, 54, was among the 17 Republicans who originally vied for the Republican presidential nomination, but he dropped out of the race in February after failing to gain traction in the early voting. He became one of eventual nominee Trump's staunchest supporters.

As head of the New York businessman's transition team, he would work to smooth the handover from Democratic President Barack Obama to Trump should Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton in the Nov. 8 election.

U.S. prosecutors are nearing the end of their case against Kelly and Baroni after four weeks of testimony. Lawyers for the two defendants have argued that virtually the entire Christie administration was aware of the scheme and have portrayed Kelly and Baroni as scapegoats.

Both were expected to take the witness stand in their defense. (Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Frank McGurty and Jonathan Oatis)


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