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Jun 14, 5:06 PM EDT

Judge declines to toss indictment in New Jersey bridge case



NEWARK, N.J. (AP) -- A federal judge in New Jersey declined to dismiss an indictment against two former allies of Gov. Chris Christie in the 2013 George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal Tuesday, rejecting their argument that vague federal laws don't apply to their alleged actions.

U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton's ruling moves former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey executive Bill Baroni and former Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly closer to a September trial date.

They're charged with conspiracy, wire fraud and civil rights violations for allegedly scheming to close lanes leading to the bridge in Fort Lee to create gridlock to punish that town's Democratic mayor for not endorsing the Republican Christie's re-election.

In motions to dismiss the indictment filed in February, Kelly and Baroni argued the government used a law more commonly applied to cases of public theft or embezzlement to charge them with misapplying property of an organization receiving federal funds - the Port Authority, which operates the bridge.

They argued their due process rights were violated because they couldn't have been aware their alleged actions violated the law.

Wigenton wrote Tuesday that the issue of the law's vagueness is more properly considered at trial and not in a pretrial motion to dismiss. She also rejected the argument that they didn't violate the law because they didn't personally profit from the lane closures.

Regarding the civil rights charges, though conceding there have been differing rulings on the right to localized travel, Wigenton ruled the defendants should have known the consequences of their actions.

"A reasonable public official should have known that that conduct was 'patently violative' of the constitutional right to intrastate travel," she wrote. "Political payback is not a significant government interest."

Michael Baldassare and Michael Critchley, attorneys representing Baroni and Kelly, respectively, didn't respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

In separate filings, both lawyers invoked the Watergate scandal from the 1970s to justify their attempts to subpoena Christie's cellphone records.

In filings late Monday they also repeated accusations that the law firm representing Christie's office has deliberately refused to turn over documents it is obligated to produce and ignored potentially damaging evidence.

They argued the Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher law firm must turn over communications Christie made during the September 2013 lane closures and text messages he sent to a staffer during Baroni's testimony to a legislative committee in 2013.

The request satisfies the standard set by the Supreme Court in ordering Nixon to turn over the Watergate tapes, the attorneys wrote.

"President Nixon's tapes were not immune from a subpoena. Neither is Governor Christie's phone," Baldassare, Baroni's attorney, wrote.

The text messages are crucial, Baldassare wrote, because Baroni is accused of concocting a story for the committee about the lane closures being part of a traffic study to cover up their actual intent: to punish a local mayor for not endorsing Christie.

Christie hasn't been charged and was absolved of wrongdoing by a 2014 report by the Gibson Dunn firm, which has billed the state more than $10 million for representing Christie's office in the matter.

Christie said last month he gave his phone to the government two years ago and wasn't sure who has it now.

On Tuesday, a U.S. attorney's office spokesman said federal authorities never possessed the phone.

Randy Mastro, the lead attorney representing Christie for Gibson Dunn, didn't respond to an email Tuesday about the phone's whereabouts.

Critchley, representing Kelly, accused Gibson Dunn of "doing nothing" to investigate Christie's text exchanges.

"GDC's apparent blind spot for damaging information concerning Governor Christie and his senior staff (except, of course, Ms. Kelly) is hardly surprising because holding others to the same standard as Ms. Kelly would have been disastrous to GDC's propaganda campaign," Critchley wrote.

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This story has been corrected to show Christie, not the law firm, said the government had his phone.

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