WASHINGTON -- Were he still U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey, there's little doubt that Gov. Chris Christie (R) would have launched a federal investigation into a gubernatorial administration that shut down lanes of a public highway to exact political revenge. But the office of current U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman will face an uphill battle if it seeks to move past the "preliminary inquiry" stage of the federal investigation into the shutdown of access lanes to the busiest bridge in America.
“The Port Authority Office of Inspector General has referred the matter to us, and our office is reviewing it to determine whether a federal law was implicated," Rebekah Carmichael, public affairs officer for the U.S. attorney's office, said in a statement.
What seems to be missing, however, is a clear connection to an alleged violation of federal public corruption statutes. Democratic state Sen. Ray Lesniak, a lawyer, was vague when asked what criminal statute might be in play. "There’s gotta be dozens of state and federal criminal law violations," he said.
There's no allegation that Christie or any of his top aides profited financially from shutting down two access lanes in Fort Lee, N.J., snarling traffic in the town and on the George Washington Bridge for several days. And if the Christie administration had jammed phone lines instead of traffic lanes, it would have violated federal law. But making a federal corruption charge stick against anyone in the administration, based on the information that has been made public, could be a stretch.
"This may fall under the category of egregious behavior which we wish is criminal, but may or may not be," Loyola Law School professor Jessica A. Levinson told The Huffington Post.
Back when he was U.S. attorney, Christie was known for his aggressive pursuit of public corruption cases, often against politicians who happened to be Democrats. At the time, he was armed with the broad "honest services" statute, which was used to go after public corruption until it was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2010. The law, which made it illegal to deprive "another of the intangible right of honest services," was deemed unconstitutional. Nowadays, there has to be some sort of bribery or kickback scheme to bring a honest services charge.
Levinson confirmed that an honest service charge is out for now unless information regarding improper payments comes out. "Right now this just looks like political retribution," she said.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, thinks federal charges are a possibility, suggesting prosecutors could look at wire fraud charges if officials lied in emails about the cause of the shutdown.
"A determined prosecutor could make a case," Sloan said.
The announcement of such a preliminary inquiry has the potential to be perceived as a political move by a Democratic administration against a top Republican contender in 2016, but it certainly seems to comply with Justice Department guidelines. Under those guidelines, federal prosecutors are not supposed to comment or respond to questions about the existence of an ongoing investigation unless the matter has "already received substantial publicity, or about which the community needs to be reassured that the appropriate law enforcement agency is investigating the incident, or where release of information is necessary to protect the public interest, safety, or welfare."