By Joseph Ax
PRINCETON, N.J. (Reuters) - A citizen's complaint against New Jersey Governor Chris Christie related to the "Bridgegate" lane-closure scandal can move forward, a judge ruled on Thursday, referring the case to state prosecutors to consider possible criminal charges.
Roy McGeady, the presiding judge for Bergen County municipal courts, found probable cause for the criminal complaint filed last month by Bill Brennan, an activist and retired firefighter, a court official confirmed.
The complaint of official misconduct accused Christie of knowing about a plot to close down lanes at the George Washington Bridge as an act of political payback. The governor has repeatedly denied any prior knowledge of the closures, which created massive traffic jams in northern New Jersey.
The ruling ratchets up the political pressure on Christie, who became a major supporter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump after dropping his own White House bid and now heads his White House transition team.
The controversy surrounding the scandal, which has resulted in criminal charges against two of Christie's associates, helped scuttle his bid for the Republican presidential nomination and has eroded the governor's approval ratings in New Jersey.
The misconduct case now moves to the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office, which will decide whether enough evidence exists to support a criminal charge. "The office has no comment at this time," spokeswoman Maureen Parenta said in an email.
Brennan filed the complaint in municipal court in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where Christie allies were accused of deliberately causing a massive traffic jam in September 2013 by closing access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in order to punish the town's mayor. The bridge is a major link to New York City.
The two Christie associates - his former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, and former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey executive Bill Baroni - have been on trial in federal court in Newark, New Jersey, for their alleged roles in the scandal.
Brennan's complaint was based on testimony from David Wildstein, another Port Authority executive who pleaded guilty in the case and has been cooperating with prosecutors, that Christie was aware of the lane closures at the time.
A Christie spokesman, Brian Murray, said the governor would appeal the ruling immediately.
"This is a dishonorable complaint filed by a known serial complainant and political activist with a history of abusing the judicial system," Murray said. "The simple fact is the governor had no knowledge of the lane realignments either before they happened or while they were happening. This matter has already been thoroughly investigated by three separate independent investigations."
Brennan has filed numerous complaints, as well as lawsuits, against various officials in New Jersey over the years.
Federal prosecutors have accused Kelly, Baroni and Wildstein of orchestrating the lane closures to send a message to Fort Lee Mayor Michael Sokolich after the Democrat refused to endorse Christie's 2013 gubernatorial re-election campaign.
At the time, Christie was already eyeing a White House run, and his advisers believed a show of bipartisan support would help enhance his national standing.
Christie, 54, was among the 17 Republicans who originally vied for the Republican presidential nomination, but he dropped out of the race in February after failing to gain traction in the early voting. He became one of eventual nominee Trump’s staunchest supporters.
As head of the New York businessman's transition team, he would work to smooth the handover from Democratic President Barack Obama to Trump should Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton in the Nov. 8 election.
U.S. prosecutors are nearing the end of their case against Kelly and Baroni after four weeks of testimony. Lawyers for the two defendants have argued that virtually the entire Christie administration was aware of the scheme and have portrayed Kelly and Baroni as scapegoats.
Both were expected to take the witness stand in their defense.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Frank McGurty and Jonathan Oatis)