Still reeling from the impact of Hurricane Sandy, New Jersey has been struck again by another storm, but this one of major political consequences: BridgeGate. By now we have all heard the allegations that traffic jams were intentionally caused on the George Washington Bridge from September 9-13 in 2013, to retaliate against Fort Lee Mayor, Mark Sokolich, a democrat. Reportedly, elements of the Christie political machine and appointees were upset with Sokolich support for Christie’s opponent in the last gubernatorial election. For those four days two of the three access lanes from Fort Lee to the GWB were blocked, causing massive delays.
Besides the inconvenience to commuters at least one person may have been denied access to immediate EMT care. Local EMTS reported that they were delayed in responding to a variety of calls because of the gridlock on the Ft. Lee access roads. In one instance there was a reported 7 minute delay in reaching a 91 year old woman who ultimately succumbed. Recent news reports quote her daughter indicating that her mother’s age and deteriorating health, and not the delay from the traffic snarls were responsible for her mother’s death.
Christie’s political adversaries are apparently undaunted by this concession, calling for state and federal criminal investigations. As of this writing several key people close to Christie have been dismissed and/or resigned, while the author of the damning emails that have been uncovered, David Wildstein, asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. Wildstein was the director of interstate capital projects for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. On August 13, 2013, allegedly Christie chief of staff, Bridgette Anne Kelly (another who just faced the axe) emailed Wildstein, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” The response was Wildstein ordering the lane closures on Sept. 6th. Wildstein resigned on December 6th, as a result of the revelations. Wildstein relied upon his Fifth Amendment protections in testimony this past week before a New Jersey state Assembly committee investigating BridgeGate. The Assembly then voted to hold Wildstein in contempt.
Two intriguing legal issues arise: the first is whether anyone directly responsible for the lane closures are subject to criminal prosecution; and, second, was it appropriate for the Assembly to hold Wildstein in contempt for exercising a fundamental Constitutional right when he took the Fifth. The refusal to answer the committee questions is potentially a misdemeanor under New Jersey law.
First, regarding potential criminal responsibility, the short answer is that those responsible should be prosecuted. If it is determined that the delay in reaching the elderly patient contributed to her demise the case can be made that this is potentially an involuntary manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide charge. The linchpin of any such accusation is the proof that the delay caused or contributed to the death. Notwithstanding the forgiving comments of the woman’s daughter, prosecutors can make their own determination. At least one politician has called for an investigation by New York criminal authorities because the Port Authority is a joint state venture, to avoid any political influence on the outcome of a criminal investigation.
Causation is an important element of a potential homicide charge. The age of the deceased and the minimal timeline of that delay would suggest that this would be a difficult hurdle for prosecutors. There is another charge of Reckless Endangerment that does not require proof of an effect on a specific victim. Rather, if it can be proved that the acts were reckless and put members of the public, in general, in danger the charge may be appropriate.
Another column will discuss whether the finding of contempt against Wildstein is appropriate. In summary, the issue of BridgeGate will linger as long as the impact of Sandy has, given Christie’s projected national political ambition. Jersey Strong may have to be amended to read “Jersey Strong Arm!”