TRENTON - Federal prosecutors say the trial of former allies of Gov. Christie in the George Washington Bridge lane-closure case should remain in New Jersey, rejecting one of the defendants' arguments, that "sensationalistic" media coverage has prejudiced a potential jury pool in Newark.
In court filings made public late Tuesday, prosecutors in the office of U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said the defendant, Bill Baroni, a former top Christie appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, had failed to meet the legal burden of showing that "extraordinary local prejudice will prevent a fair trial."
In response to defense requests, however, prosecutors said they would disclose more information about Christie's statements regarding a potentially key episode recounted in the indictment. The government also said it would identify under seal the unindicted coconspirators referred to in the indictment.
Prosecutors allege that Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff, conspired to close lanes leading to the bridge in September 2013 to punish a local Democratic mayor for not endorsing Christie's reelection campaign that year.
Baroni and Kelly have pleaded not guilty. David Wildstein, another former Port Authority official, has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the government. The trial is scheduled to begin in April.
The bridge scandal has weighed on the Republican governor's bid for the presidency.
Prosecutors said the potential jury pool in North Jersey included a large and diverse population of four million people. They noted that a federal judge had rejected attempts last year by one of the Boston Marathon bombers to move his trial, in part because of the size of the district and "diminishment of media scrutiny over time."
Federal prosecutors in New Jersey acknowledged that press coverage of the bridge case had been "extensive" but said it "has largely been clustered around new developments in the case."
"Second, the lion's share of media attention seems focused on how the story might affect Gov. Christie's presidential campaign," prosecutors wrote. "When it comes to defendants' roles and the events underlying the indictment, the media have by and large reported the story factually, not sensationally, notwithstanding what are undoubtedly the most negative clippings Baroni could find."
Prosecutors added that courts "have long recognized the strong public interest in trying criminal cases in the district where they occurred."
Fishman's office also said a judge should not force the government to challenge the governor's office's redaction or withholding of documents.
Kelly and Baroni allege that Christie's lawyers have improperly withheld or redacted thousands of documents. Christie has described that assertion as "defense-lawyer baloney."
Prosecutors said they had provided Kelly and Baroni with all the documents that Christie's office had handed over to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
The defendants can challenge the privilege assertions on their own by issuing a subpoena to the governor's office, prosecutors wrote.
Baroni's attorneys already have asked U.S. District Judge Susan D. Wigenton to grant them the power to issue such a subpoena, if she rules against their request to force Fishman's office to challenge Christie's document production.
Baroni and Kelly also have protested that prosecutors gave them nearly two million documents that weren't easily searchable, and had failed to identify within those documents information that could be favorable to the defense.
The government said it was required only to disclose such information, not to identify it for the defense. Prosecutors also said they were in no better position to find potentially favorable evidence for Baroni and Kelly than were the defendants.
However, prosecutors did say they would provide Baroni and Kelly some additional information that they requested, including a more detailed disclosure of Christie's statements to the government regarding his administration's canceling of meetings with Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop in the summer of 2013.
The indictment alleges that the conspirators refused to meet with Fulop because he, too, had refused to endorse Christie's reelection. The indictment didn't say this was a crime, but defense attorneys have said in court filings that the government was likely to use the Fulop episode to help establish a pattern of retributive politics.
The government had disclosed that Christie had told prosecutors that he chose to cancel the meetings because he didn't want to jeopardize his relationship with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who is likely to campaign against Fulop for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2017.
Kelly and Baroni say Christie's statement undercuts the prosecution's theory.
Prosecutors also said they would allow Baroni to inspect a replica of his Port Authority hard drive, which he alleges Wildstein stole when Wildstein resigned from the bistate agency in December 2013.
Baroni says the hard drive contains 87,000 documents. The government suggested Baroni may not be able to review parts of the hard drive that the Port Authority says contains privileged information.
Prosecutors rejected Baroni's request for more information regarding the hard drive, saying, for example, that there is no grand jury testimony about it.