A lawyer for a mystery man who prosecutors said joined a plot to snarl traffic at the George Washington Bridge urged federal appeals judges to keep his identity secret, despite news organizations’ pushing for his name.
Releasing the list of uncharged co-conspirators would expose “John Doe,” as his attorneys call him, to having his reputation and career needlessly ruined, his attorney argued Monday to the U.S. appeals court in Philadelphia. John Doe filed an emergency appeal after a federal judge ordered release of the list last month. A three-judge panel began hearing attorneys’ arguments.
Three former allies of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were charged with creating traffic jams near the bridge in 2013 to punish a mayor who didn’t back his re-election. In January, prosecutors gave defense lawyers a list of the co-conspirators who joined the plot but weren’t charged with a crime.
About a dozen media organizations, including Bloomberg News, pushed for the release of the names, saying the right of public access trumped the privacy concerns of those on the list. U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton agreed, initially setting a May 13 deadline for prosecutors to disclose the list. She extended it to May 17, but the appeals court blocked the release that day.
The identities of the co-conspirators have been a political mystery since May 2015, when prosecutors announced the indictment of the two former Christie allies, Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni. A third defendant, former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey executive David Wildstein, pleaded guilty and is helping prosecutors.
Lawyers for the media argued in court papers that prosecutors gave the list to Kelly and Baroni through a document known as a bill of particulars, which detailed the case against them more fully and triggered a First Amendment right of access. Kramer and U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman countered that the list was not a bill of particulars so the public has no right of access to the names before trial, scheduled for September.
Identifying John Doe as a co-conspirator brands him as a criminal, John Doe’s attorney Jenny Kramer said in a May 23 court filing.
“No governmental interest justifies — or could ever justify — such a public branding and the irreparable public injury it would cause,” Kramer wrote. “In fact, the government has repeatedly admitted that it has no interest at this stage of the criminal proceeding in publicly naming anyone as an unindicted co-conspirator.”
In response, a lawyer for the media, Bruce Rosen, argued that the conspirator letter was “properly treated” by prosecutors, defense lawyers and the judge as a bill of particulars, which means the public has a right of access to the names.
“Despite Doe’s protestations, there can be no dispute that the government produced the conspirator letter in response to a demand for a bill of particulars,” Rosen wrote on May 27.
The scandal hurt Christie’s image through his failed bid for the Republican nomination for the White House. He dropped out in February and backed Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee. Trump said last month that if he wins, Christie will lead his post-election transition team.
(c) 2016, Bloomberg · David Voreacos · NATIONAL