Chris Christie in Ft. Lee, NJ (REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)
The scandal over the closure of local Fort Lee access lanes to the George Washington Bridge last September orchestrated by Gov. Chris Christie’s aides and appointees has spilled into the courts, as class-action suits are being lodged by people and businesses claiming they were damaged by the gridlock.
The suits come as the state Legislature and the U.S. Attorney’s Office are investigating the closures, which are alleged to have been political payback against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, for not endorsing Christie’s reelection last fall.
The first, Galicki v. State of New Jersey, was filed in federal court in Newark on Jan. 9, against Christie, his former deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly, the state, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge.
Also named were two former Port Authority employees, both Christie appointees, who resigned last month over the scandal: Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni and Director of Interstate Capital Projects David Wildstein.
Six individual plaintiffs claim they were adversely impacted by the lane closings, which took place on Sept. 9 through 15, including Kim Joscelyn, identified as an hourly employee of Rosemarie Arnold’s Fort Lee law firm, which filed the suit.
Residents of Fort Lee or nearby towns, they were en route to their jobs on those days—four of them by traversing the bridge to New York City, the complaint says.
All claim they became trapped in Fort Lee traffic, delaying their arrival at work and resulting in lost wages for two of them.
They have sued for violation of the due process and privileges and immunities clauses of the U.S. Constitution, saying they were deprived of life, liberty and property and their right of free ingress into and egress out of other states.
They also assert tort claims: negligent hiring and retention against Christie, the state and the Port Authority and breach of a duty to refrain from using a political position for purposes of retaliation, against all defendants.
They seek to represent a class defined as thousands of individuals and business owners who sustained economic, physical or psychological injury as a result of the clogged Fort Lee traffic.
An amended complaint filed Tuesday added several more counts and three new plaintiffs: a Bergen Community College student, a tractor-trailer driver and a newspaper delivery company.
The other suit, GW Car Service LLC v. State of New Jersey, was filed Monday in Bergen County Superior Court by individuals and taxi and limousine companies. They bring federal and state civil rights claims for alleged constitutional violations along with claims for civil racketeering and conspiracy.
The suit names the Christie for Governor campaign and his campaign manager Bill Stepien and chief spokesman Michael Drewniak, whose names appear in emails released by Wildstein pursuant to a subpoena from the state Assembly’s Transportation, Public Works and Independent Authorities committee. It does not name Christie himself or the Port Authority.
Former State Bar president Barry Epstein of Rochelle Park, who brought the case, along with his son Michael, says he filed in state court because of concern about state immunity from suit in federal court under the 11th Amendment and he did not sue Christie because he is taking him at his word for now when he denies ordering the closures.
He plans to add the Port Authority but says it requires 60 days’ notice, which on Tuesday he was preparing to file. He says the bistate agency violated New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act claim by collecting tolls from people crossing the bridge while hindering their ability to do so.
He will seek to recoup all of the $12 tolls collected while the lanes were blocked, subject to trebling under the act, which also provides for attorney fees.
The putative class has many thousands of members who can be identified through EZPass records and license plate photographs taken at the toll plazas, he says.
Arnold terms Epstein’s complaint a copycat suit and calls it “unbelievable” that he did not name Christie.
“Perhaps his administration’s bullying and revenge tactics have succeeded in intimidating certain claimants,” remarks Arnold.
Christie spokesmen Michael Drewniak and Colin Reed did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuits.
Nor did lawyers for Wildstein and Baroni: respectively, Alan Zegas, who heads a Chatham firm and represented former Newark Mayor Sharpe James in a corruption prosecution by then-U.S. Attorney Christie, and Michael Himmel, a former prosecutor now with Lowenstein Sandler in Roseland.
The documents subpoenaed from Wildstein, which were made public on Jan. 8, show that Kelly gave the go-ahead for the lane closures to Wildstein, who implemented them.
Kelly emailed Wildstein “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” and Wildstein replied “Got it.”
At a Jan. 9 press conference, Christie apologized for the lane closures but denied ordering them or knowing that any of his staff were involved until the day before the conference. He also announced that he had fired Kelly, claiming she had misled him.
He further stated that he had asked Stepien—who exchanged emails with Wildstein over the closures—to withdraw his name from consideration for the post of state Republican Party chairman and to give up a consultancy with the Republican Governors Association, chaired by Christie.
At Tuesday’s state of the state address, Christie touched on the scandal, saying, “Mistakes were clearly made,” “we let down the people we are entrusted to serve” and “we will cooperate with all appropriate inquiries to ensure this breach of trust does not happen again.”
More subpoenas are expected. Assembly Democrats are forming a special committee to continue the investigation and on Tuesday appointed Reid Schar of Jenner & Block in Chicago, a former assistant U.S. attorney, as special counsel to assist it. Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said a similar committee will be established in that house.
U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman is conducting a probe at the request of the Port Authority Office of Inspector General.
In addition, the Assembly Transportation Committee on Monday referred contempt charges against Wildstein to the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office over his refusal to answer questions while invoking the Fifth Amendment.
Also on Monday, Sens. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, whose district includes Fort Lee, and Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, asked the Bergen County prosecutor to look into the closings.