TRENTON - A federal judge on Tuesday ruled that prosecutors must provide a group of media organizations access to a list of individuals who were linked to the alleged conspiracy to close lanes to the George Washington Bridge but whom they did not charge.
"Although privacy for third parties is indeed important, this court is satisfied that the privacy interests of uncharged third parties are insufficiently compelling to outweigh the public's right of access," U.S. District Judge Susan D. Wigenton wrote.
"Disclosure is appropriate, and the media's motion for access to the list of unindicted coconspirators is granted," she wrote.
In January, prosecutors in the office of U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman provided defendants Bridget Anne Kelly, Gov. Christie's former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, a former top Christie appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, with the list of so-called unindicted coconspirators.
The list, prosecutors said, included "any other individual about whom the government has sufficient evidence to designate as having joined the conspiracy."
Prosecutors had requested that the list remain under seal but did not formally file a motion seeking Wigenton's order on the matter. Thirteen media organizations - including the company that publishes the Inquirer; the Associated Press; and NBCUniversal Media - asked the judge to order the government to provide access to the list.
It was not immediately clear when reporters might get to see the documents. Fishman could appeal. The fight would then head to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment.
"We are hopeful that U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman will heed Judge Wigenton's findings and agree that the public's right of access to this list must prevail, rather than prolonging the lack of transparency in this matter" by appealing, Bruce Rosen, counsel for the media group, said in a statement Tuesday.
In a letter to Wigenton, Rosen called for the "immediate turnover" of the list.
A federal grand jury last year indicted Kelly and Baroni on charges of conspiring to obtain by fraud and misapply property of an organization (the Port Authority) that received federal benefits; wire fraud; and violating the civil rights of the residents of Fort Lee, Bergen County, which is near the bridge.
The indictment said Kelly, Baroni, and "others," including former Port Authority official David Wildstein, conspired in 2013 to "misuse Port Authority property to facilitate and conceal the causing of traffic problems in Fort Lee as punishment of" Mayor Mark Sokolich because he refused to endorse Christie's reelection that year.
The list of unindicted coconspirators is expected to reveal the unnamed "others" in the indictment. Wildstein pleaded guilty last year and is cooperating with the government.
"In cases charging a criminal conspiracy, the government often does not charge every individual about whom there is some evidence to suggest that the individual was a member of the conspiracy," prosecutors wrote in a February court filing in response to the media's motion.
"Such decisions may be made for any number of proper reasons, including, for example, the assessment that there is not enough evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt," it said.
Sealing the list of unindicted coconspirators would be permissible under the First Amendment only if it was "'necessitated by a compelling governmental interest, and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest,' " Wigenton wrote Tuesday, quoting case law.
Prosecutors argued that "the privacy interests of uncharged" individuals "who have no opportunity to vindicate themselves at trial" outweighed "the public's presumptive right of access to such information."
Wigenton noted that the lane closures had been "extensively covered" in the media and that anyone named in the document is likely to have been a government employee or elected official.
"There is very little that is private about the lane closures or the lives of the people allegedly connected to them," she wrote.
She cited U.S. v. Kushner, a 2005 case in which a judge wrote that the "public has a strong interest in the use officials make of their positions of public trust."
In that case, then-U.S. Attorney Christie charged Charles Kushner, a developer and Democratic fund-raiser, with tax evasion, witness tampering, and making illegal campaign contributions. Kushner was sentenced to two years in jail.
Kushner's son Jared is married to Ivanka Trump, daughter of Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee. Donald Trump on Monday named Christie head of the campaign's transition team.
In the bridge case, the media also sought access to sealed documents that have been filed under a protective order.
Wigenton denied the motion, saying she would give the government and the defense 10 days to file formal motions to seal the material and then revisit the matter.