WASHINGTON -- Legal experts say it would be tough for federal officials to make the case that aides to Gov. Chris Christie violated federal public corruption statutes when they shut down access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in an act of retaliation against a mayor who didn't endorse the Republican governor's reelection campaign. But while corruption statutes might fall short, some experts suggested this week that federal civil rights laws could be in play.
The U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey, with assistance from the FBI, is currently conducting a preliminary inquiry into the September payback scheme. The lack of monetary gain by any employees involved could hinder a public corruption charge, but a lack of a profit wouldn't affect a civil rights case.
Potentially at play is Section 241 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code, which makes it illegal for two or more persons "to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person in any State, Territory, Commonwealth, Possession, or District in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having so exercised the same." Several experts said that law could offer federal authorities a path towards prosecution.
"The emails establish a pretty compelling case that there was a conspiracy to curtail access to the bridge," William Yeomans, an American University law professor who previously served as acting head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, told The Huffington Post. "As I understand it, people using the Ft. Lee access ramp have to get on the bridge and cannot get off until they are across the state line -- in N.Y. Interfering with their access to the bridge clearly interferes with their right to travel interstate."
Former federal prosecutor Robert Radick agreed that a civil rights case might be the best way to go. “The government would have to be somewhat creative to find a theory by which a federal crime occurred, and would need to look beyond the usual offenses on which it relies," he told the New York Daily News. "For example, there is a constitutional right to travel across interstate lines, and a conspiracy to interfere with that right can constitute a federal crime."
"I could even see a federal civil rights investigation into this," Stephen A. Saltzburg, a criminal law professor at the George Washington University Law School, told Newsweek. "That's very serious."
But Andrew Lourie, a former federal prosecutor in New Jersey, told Bloomberg News that such a civil rights charge would be a stretch.
“They didn’t really deprive anyone of their right to interstate travel -- they just slowed it down,” Lourie told Bloomberg. “There may be something very easy under state law that prevents the need to torture federal law. My guess is there’s a state-level misdemeanor or even felony misconduct.”
A spokeswoman for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division declined to say whether employees were being consulted as part of the investigation, referring questions to the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey. A spokesman there did not immediately respond to a request for comment.