A government watchdog who attempted to have former Gov. Chris Christie prosecuted for official misconduct in connection with the Bridgegate scandal has no standing to demand that a special prosecutor be appointed in the case, a New Jersey appeals court has ruled.
The three-judge Appellate Division panel in an unpublished opinion released Monday turned aside an appeal from retired Teaneck firefighter William Brennan, who had asked that a special prosecutor be appointed to review the case, in which a complaint filed by Brennan previously was dismissed.
“Other than as a possible witness, a citizen complainant has no further role in the criminal prosecution,” Appellate Division Judges Joseph Yannotti, Garry Rothstadt and Robert Gilson said. “There is no authority in this state for a court to appoint a special prosecutor under the circumstances here.”
Bergen County Assignment Judge Bonnie Mizdol ruled last March that Brennan failed to demonstrate that the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office was biased in Christie’s favor when it dismissed the misconduct complaint.
Brennan claimed in the complaint that Christie knew about the politically motivated September 2013 George Washington Bridge lane closures while they were underway, but failed to take steps to end the scheme.
Brennan’s attorney, Brick solo Donald Burke, said he was disappointed with the ruling.
“At a time when public trust in our government institutions has fallen to record lows, a judicial system that fails to hold powerful government officials accountable undermines the public’s trust in the government,” Burke said, adding that the court should have appointed a prosecutor who is “not answerable to the governor” and “is free from the inherent conflict and self-interest of the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office.”
He added that the appellate court “failed to appreciate that the judiciary has a duty to avoid the public perception of an appearance of impropriety. Creating hurdles to proper judicial oversight to avoid an appearance of impropriety, such as standing, undermines the integrity of the judicial system.”
Christie’s attorney, Kevin Marino, took the opposite view.
“We are particularly pleased that, in addition to affirming the trial court’s dismissal of Mr. Brennan’s complaint, the Appellate Division roundly rejected the fanciful notion on which that complaint was based: that a citizen complainant can somehow arrogate the awesome power of the prosecutor and, into the bargain, disqualify that public official’s entire office from performing their sworn function,” said Marino, of Marino, Tortorella & Boyle in Chatham.
The Attorney General’s Office, which represented the state and the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, had no comment.
Brennan claimed the March 2 decision by John Higgins III, the first assistant Bergen County prosecutor, to not proceed with the prosecution lacked impartiality. Higgins took on the case after Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir Grewal—appointed by Christie to that post, and since appointed attorney general by current Gov. Phil Murphy—removed himself from the case. Mizdol rejected Brennan’s claims and said Higgins’ assertions that he could not prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt was a valid reason to terminate the complaint.
Mizdol also rejected Brennan’s bid to refer the case to a grand jury, finding he lacked standing to make that request because it was not pleaded in his initial petition or his appeal. Mizdol added that, even if the relief were not procedurally precluded, it would be substantively denied.
Higgins’s termination of the complaint came after Roy McGeady, Bergen County’s presiding judge of municipal court, ruled that probable cause existed to support the complaint but denied Brennan’s bid for a special prosecutor. Brennan appealed the decision regarding the special prosecutor to Mizdol.
The appeals court agreed with the lower courts’ rulings on Brennan’s lack of standing.
“We conclude that such standing does not exist,” the Appellate Division judges said in the per curiam decision.