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Businesses Close As Immigrants Stay Home To Protest Trump

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Dozens of restaurants, bars, and other businesses in cities around the United States shut their doors on Thursday to show support for “A Day Without Immigrants,” a walkout aimed at protesting President Donald Trump’s policies.

Activists called on immigrants to stay home from work, avoid shopping and eating out, and skip classes in an effort to highlight the vital role they play in U.S. society.

The protest was prompted by Trump’s vows to crack down on illegal immigration and his executive order, which was put on hold by federal courts, that temporarily banned travel to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries. Immigrant rights’ groups expressed alarm after federal raids last week in which more than 680 people illegally in the country were arrested.

Many Restaurants, which often depend heavily on immigrant staff, closed for the day in cities including Washington, D.C., New York, and Chicago.

Celebrity chefs such as Jose Andres in Washington and Rick Bayless in Chicago shuttered several restaurants in solidarity with protesters. A number of restaurateurs whose eateries were remaining open said they would donate part of the day’s proceeds to pro-immigrant groups.

“People that never missed one day of work are telling you they don’t want to work on Thursday,” the Spanish-born Andres said in an interview at his restaurant Oyamel, which was closed on Thursday. “They want to say, ‘Here we are,’ by not showing up. The least I could do was to say, ‘OK, we stand by you.'”

In New York, the owners of the popular Blue Ribbon restaurants said they would close several eateries despite the economic impact.

“It’s really a show of support for our staff and as a team and a family as a whole,” said co-owner Eric Bromberg.

The nature of the action made it difficult to ascertain how many immigrants were participating, although there were rallies scheduled later on Thursday in Chicago, Houston, and Raleigh, North Carolina.

The protest is the latest in a series of collective actions since Trump took office from women’s groups, immigrant groups, and other activists.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York, Timothy McLaughlin in Chicago and Liza Feria and Ian Simpson in Washington; Writing by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Bill Trott)

IMAGE: People participate in a protest against U.S. President Donald Trump’s immigration policy and the recent Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids in New York City, U.S. February 11, 2017. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

Judge To Weigh Citizen’s ‘Bridgegate’ Complaint Against Chris Christie

(Reuters) – A New Jersey judge is set to hear arguments on Wednesday over whether to dismiss a citizen’s criminal complaint against Governor Chris Christie for his alleged role in the “Bridgegate” lane-closure scandal.

A lawyer for Christie has asked Judge Bonnie Mizdol to throw out the complaint filed by Bill Brennan, a retired firefighter and activist who recently announced a long-shot bid to succeed Christie in this fall’s election. The governor is not expected to attend the hearing in Hackensack, New Jersey.

Prosecutors have also said they do not believe the case should proceed at this time.

Brennan has accused Christie of knowing about a scheme to shut down access lanes at the George Washington Bridge in 2013 to punish a local mayor for failing to endorse his reelection campaign.

Two former Christie associates were convicted in November of federal charges for orchestrating the plot. Christie has denied any knowledge of or involvement in the plan, but U.S. prosecutors presented evidence at trial suggesting he was at least aware of the lane closures at the time they occurred.

Brennan filed the complaint in municipal court in Fort Lee, where the lane closures occurred. In October, a different New Jersey judge, Roy McGeady, referred the complaint to prosecutors to determine whether enough evidence exists to support criminal charges against Christie.

Christie’s lawyer, Craig Carpenito, said in a court filing that the matter should never have gotten that far, calling it “a political stunt from a now-declared candidate for governor.”

The Bergen County prosecutor’s office has also taken the position that the case cannot continue, saying in court papers that McGeady violated Christie’s rights by not allowing Carpenito to take part in a hearing on the matter.

Brennan has said he will refile his complaint if Mizdol, the top judge in Bergen County, decides to toss it.

Despite Christie’s denials, the scandal dogged his failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination. He was once seen as a possible cabinet appointee for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump until the conviction of his former allies prompted a fresh round of negative attention.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)

IMAGE: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie departs after meeting with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, U.S., November 20, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar

After Court Blocks Request, Green Party Recount Bid Comes To A Close

(Reuters) – The recount effort by Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein in three U.S. states came to an end on Monday, after weeks of legal wrangling yielded only one electoral review in Wisconsin that favored Republican winner Donald Trump.

A federal judge in Pennsylvania rejected Stein’s request for a recount and an examination of that state’s voting machines for evidence of hacking in the Nov. 8 election won by Trump.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin election officials said on Monday they had completed their 10-day recount after finding that Trump’s margin of victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton had increased by 131 votes, bringing Trump’s total lead to 22,748.

“The final Wisconsin vote is in and guess what – we just picked up an additional 131 votes. The Dems and Green Party can now rest. Scam!” Trump said on Twitter.

Stein, who finished fourth, challenged the results in those two states as well as Michigan, where the state’s top court on Friday denied Stein’s last-ditch appeal to keep a recount going. All of those traditionally Democratic strongholds supported Trump over Clinton.

Even if all three recounts had taken place, they were unlikely to change the outcome.

Stein argued that the use in many Pennsylvania districts of electronic voting machines with no paper trail left the system vulnerable to hacking.

In a 31-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Paul Diamond in Philadelphia said it “borders on the irrational” to suspect hacking occurred in Pennsylvania. He noted that the deadline to certify the state’s electoral votes is Tuesday, making it impossible to hold a recount in time.

While there is no evidence of large-scale voting machine hacking, U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia targeted Clinton in a series of cyber attacks. Trump has questioned those reports.

In response to Diamond’s ruling, Stein said in a statement that Pennsylvanians’ right to have their votes counted had been “stripped from right under them.”

Trump won Pennsylvania by more than 44,000 votes and Michigan by more than 10,000 votes, according to the latest figures.

Despite winning the national popular vote by more than 2 percent, Clinton would have had to sweep those states to win the presidency under the U.S. Electoral College system, which assigns electoral votes state-by-state rather than by overall national totals.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York; Additional reporting by Timothy McLaughlin in Chicago and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Andrew Hay and Lisa Shumaker)

IMAGE: Jill Stein, 2016 Green Party candidate for U.S. president, holds a rally and protest against stopping the recount of election ballots at Cobo Center in Detroit, Michigan December 10, 2016.  REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

U.S. Judge Rejects Bid For Pennsylvania Election Recount

(Reuters) – A U.S. judge in Pennsylvania on Monday rejected Green Party candidate Jill Stein’s request for a recount of the state’s ballots in last month’s presidential election and an examination of voting machines for evidence of hacking.

The decision came on the same day that Wisconsin election officials expect to complete that state’s recount, although the results will not change the outcome.

Stein, who finished fourth in the election behind President-elect Donald Trump, had challenged the results in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. All of those traditionally Democratic strongholds supported Trump, a Republican, in the Nov. 8 vote.

The Michigan Supreme Court on Friday denied Stein’s last-ditch appeal to secure a recount there.

Even if all three recounts had taken place, it was considered highly unlikely that they would flip the overall result from Trump to Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton.

Stein had argued that Pennsylvania’s use of electronic voting machines with no paper trail in some districts left the system vulnerable to hacking.

In a 31-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Paul Diamond in Philadelphia said there was no evidence suggesting hacking had occurred. He also emphasized that the deadline to certify the state’s electoral votes is Tuesday, making it impossible to hold a recount in time.

Diamond said “suspicion of a ‘hacked’ Pennsylvania election borders on the irrational.”

Stein could appeal the court’s decision. Her campaign did not immediately comment.

While there is no evidence of large-scale voting machine hacking, U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia targeted Clinton in a series of cyberattacks on Democratic Party groups. Trump has questioned those reports.

U.S. presidential elections are determined not by the overall national popular vote but by the Electoral College, which awards votes based on the outcome in each state.

Trump, who won a projected 306 Electoral College votes to Clinton’s 232, is set to take office on Jan. 20. Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2.6 million ballots nationwide, according to the latest count.

Stein did not win any electoral college votes.

As of Monday morning, the Wisconsin recount was 95 percent complete and showed Trump with a increase of 628 votes, Clinton with an increase of 653 votes and Stein with an increase of 68 votes.

Trump won Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan by more than 27,000, 68,000 and 11,000 votes, respectively.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York; Additional reporting by Timothy McLaughlin in Chicago; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Bill Trott)

IMAGE: Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein speaks during a news conference outside Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York City, U.S. December 5, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Trump’s Business Empire Poses Unprecedented Potential Conflicts Of Interest

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Donald Trump campaigned for president as a savvy billionaire who would apply his business acumen to improving the U.S. economy, cutting taxes for Americans and negotiating better trade deals.

But his vast, complicated network of businesses under the Trump Organization, including numerous foreign investments and debts, could create unprecedented conflicts of interest when he takes the oath of office as U.S. president in January, government ethics experts said.

Federal law does not prohibit the president from being involved in private business while in office, even though members of Congress and lower-ranking executive branch officials are subject to strict conflict-of-interest rules. Lyndon Johnson, for instance, quietly managed his broadcasting businesses despite insisting publicly that he had ceased all involvement, according to his biographer, Robert Caro.

“There are no legal restrictions, no legal requirements,” said Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of the nonpartisan watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

But most presidents in recent decades have voluntarily placed their personal assets, including property and financial holdings, in blind trusts overseen by independent advisers to avoid any appearance of impropriety, experts said. Under a blind trust, the owner has no say or knowledge in how the assets are managed.

President Barack Obama was one exception, but his investments are mostly in broad-based index funds and U.S. Treasury notes with little chance of conflicts.

Trump’s businesses include licensing deals, hotels and golf courses around the world. During the campaign, he filed a 104-page financial disclosure statement, as required by law, that showed he had financial interests in more than 500 entities with names like China Trademark LLC and DT Marks Qatar LLC but had few details.

BLIND TRUST

While plenty of wealthy men have been president, no one has ascended to the White House with such a complex array of assets.

Trump’s spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on how he planned to manage his businesses while he was in the White House.

During the campaign, Trump did say he would likely transfer day-to-day operations to his children. But experts in government ethics said that would do little to insulate Trump.

“That presumably frees some time up for him to be the president, but it doesn’t do anything to clear the conflicts of interest,” said Kenneth Gross, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who has counseled high-ranking political appointees on ethics laws. “His family’s interests, his children’s interests, are co-existent with his own.”

The nature of Trump’s businesses, Gross said, makes a blind trust all but meaningless – even if he were inclined to shift control of his empire from his family, an idea he has rejected.

Gross advised Michael Bloomberg, a New York billionaire businessman, when he became mayor of New York City. Bloomberg stepped away from day-to-day operations at his data and media company, Bloomberg LP, and donated all terminals that were used by city agencies to avoid any impression of profiting from public funds.

Some of the potential problems for the Republican president-elect are obvious. One of his latest ventures, a luxury hotel in Washington just blocks from the White House, leases its property from the U.S. government, putting Trump on both sides of any landlord-tenant disputes.

Others are more opaque. Trump has licensing deals and diverse real estate holdings in numerous countries that could benefit from foreign government subsidies or tax breaks. Companies in which he holds an interest owe hundreds of millions of dollars in debt to foreign banks that are subject to U.S. regulations, such as Deutsche Bank and Bank of China, according to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

His properties include hotels in countries like Turkey, Uruguay, the Philippines and South Korea, and golf courses in the United Arab Emirates, Ireland and Britain.

Conflicts of interest could stem, for example, from countries trying to influence policies by doing business with any of his companies or even his children. His daughter Ivanka has a line of fashion products, which along with other Trump-branded items are made in countries like China.

Trump has accused China of currency manipulation and threatened to put tariffs on its imports.

GOVERNMENT REVIEW OF TRUMP INC. DEALS?

Trump’s opponent, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, faced criticism during the campaign over the Clinton Foundation, the charity founded by her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

That was despite an ethics agreement that Hillary Clinton signed in 2009 in order to become Obama’s secretary state that was designed to ensure donors could not sway U.S. foreign policy. Under the deal, the State Department was allowed to review any new contributions from foreign governments.

Unlike Clinton, however, Trump is not answerable to anyone else as president. And he has already shown himself willing to blur the lines between campaigning and marketing, holding events at his own properties and touting his companies during speeches.

Given the high-profile properties that bear his name, a blind trust would do little to help his case, experts said.

“You can’t put a golf course in a blind trust; it would be pointless,” said Robert Kelner, a Washington lawyer and an expert on government ethics. “The idea behind a blind trust is that it’s blind – you don’t know what assets are held.”

The only unassailable solution, experts said, would be for Trump to sell off his businesses and place the proceeds in a blind trust.

With no legal requirements, Trump’s actions as president are only subject to the will of the voters or to built-in checks and balances like Congressional oversight.

The potential for conflicts is exacerbated by the lack of publicly known details about Trump’s holdings. Even his net worth is unclear. Trump has boasted of more than $10 billion in wealth, but financial magazines have estimated his fortune at less than half that.

He has refused to release his tax returns, breaking with decades of presidential campaign tradition, and legal experts said he is under no obligation to do so as president.

His dealings with foreign governments are thus largely unknown. He will likely face scrutiny of policy decisions that affect countries where he is known to have business interests, said Bookbinder.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax, editing by Ross Colvin; Additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg)

IMAGE: A doorman stands as people walk past the Trump Tower in New York, U.S., May 23, 2016.  REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/File Photo

Gun Control Measures Expected To Win In Four States

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Gun control-related ballot measures in four states are expected to pass on Tuesday, opinion polls show, after gun safety advocates poured a massive amount of money into backing the initiatives.

In Maine and Nevada, residents will vote on whether to mandate universal background checks for firearm sales, including private handgun transactions.

If those two measures pass, half of all Americans would live in states that have such expanded checks. Eighteen states and Washington, D.C., have already approved similar laws.

Voters in Washington state, meanwhile, will consider allowing judges to bar people from possessing guns if they pose a danger to themselves or to others, such as accused domestic abusers. In California, a referendum would ban large-capacity ammunition magazines and require certain people to pass a background check to buy ammunition.

The U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment protects the right to bear arms, and gun rights advocates fiercely contest any attempt to restrict that freedom.

The votes in Republican-leaning Maine and Nevada represent a key test of the gun control movement’s decision to turn to a state-by-state strategy after efforts to pass nationwide legislation failed in Congress.

Opponents in Maine and Nevada say the laws are confusingly written and would burden legal gun owners while doing nothing to stop criminals.

“We know today that the place where criminals are getting guns, the black market, they aren’t subjecting themselves to background checks,” said Ryan Hamilton, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association-backed opposition in Nevada. “It doesn’t target criminal behavior, it targets law-abiding behavior.”

But proponents say background checks are widely backed by the public and would save lives.

Jennifer Crowe, a spokeswoman for the pro-initiative campaign in Nevada, said research had shown nearly one in 11 people who purchased guns online would have been barred from doing so by a background check.

“We have this huge online marketplace that we know criminals are using to get guns,” she said.

Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun control group founded by billionaire former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has spent tens of millions of dollars in Washington state, Nevada and Maine, while the National Rifle Association has focused much of its spending on supporting Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

In Nevada, the most expensive contest, the background check campaign collected more than $14 million, much of it from Bloomberg. The NRA devoted $4.8 million to fighting the measure.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

IMAGE: An audience member holds a hand lettered sign calling for further gun control at a campaign stop with U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in Nashua, New Hampshire October 16, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Former Christie Allies Convicted In N.J. ‘Bridgegate’ Trial

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Two former allies of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were convicted on Friday for their roles in the “Bridgegate” lane closure scandal, following a six-week trial that served to further tarnish the Republican’s damaged reputation.

Bridget Kelly, the governor’s former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, were found guilty in Newark federal court on all counts, the U.S. Attorney’s office in New Jersey said on Twitter.

Kelly and Baroni were convicted of fraud, conspiracy and depriving the residents of Fort Lee, New Jersey, of their civil rights.

Christie, who has repeatedly denied any advance knowledge of the scheme, is a top adviser for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

“Let me be clear once again, I had no knowledge prior to or during these lane realignments, and had no role in authorizing them,” Christie said in a statement following the verdict.

“Anything said to the contrary over the past six weeks in court is simply untrue.”

The scandal has dogged Christie, once seen as a rising political star and a potential presidential nominee before his campaign for the White House failed this year.

The two officials were accused of shutting down access lanes at the George Washington Bridge in September 2013 in Fort Lee, New Jersey, creating a massive days-long traffic jam to punish the town’s mayor, Mark Sokolich, for declining to endorse Christie’s reelection campaign.

The bridge, which connect New Jersey to Manhattan, is one of the country’s busiest.

Lawyers for Kelly and Baroni vowed to appeal.

“This is not over,” Michael Critchley, Kelly’s lawyer, said outside the courthouse, with his arm around a weeping Kelly. He said the judge had erred during jury instructions.

Defense lawyers were furious when U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton told jurors during deliberations in response to a question that they could convict Kelly and Baroni on conspiracy even if the act itself was not “intentionally punitive toward Mayor Sokolich.”

Wigenton said prosecutors did not have to prove motive, even though their case had revolved around the political retribution.

“By answering the way you’re answering, you’re directing a verdict of guilty,” an angry Critchley told Wigenton on Tuesday.

Baroni’s lawyer, Michael Baldassare, told reporters on Friday the case was a “disgrace” and said the conviction would be overturned.

“I am innocent of these charges,” a smiling Baroni said.

Kelly and Baroni’s co-conspirator, former Port Authority official and confessed mastermind David Wildstein, pleaded guilty and appeared as the government’s star witness, detailing how the three schemed to pay back Sokolich, a Democrat.

But Wildstein also implicated Christie, saying he and Baroni discussed the lane closures with the governor while they were ongoing. Christie, Wildstein testified, laughed at the notion that Sokolich was frustrated by the traffic.

At the time, Christie was eyeing a presidential run, and his aides believed that securing the backing of Democratic officials would burnish his national reputation, according to trial testimony.

Kelly, who took the stand in her defense, testified she had discussed the lane closures with Christie a month beforehand, though she said she thought at the time they were part of a legitimate traffic study.

Legal experts have said it is unlikely Christie would face any criminal consequences based on the trial testimony.

Kelly and Baroni’s lawyers argued that Wildstein had orchestrated the plot himself and told them he was conducting a traffic study. Wildstein said on the stand the three of them knew all along that the study was a bogus cover story.

Prosecutors showed jurors numerous exchanges that Kelly and Baroni each had with Wildstein, who operated as a liaison between Baroni at the Port Authority and Kelly in the governor’s office.

Those included Kelly’s now-infamous email to Wildstein that prosecutors said launched the scheme, in which she wrote, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by James Dalgleish)

IMAGE: Peter Stevens via Flickr

Gun Control Groups Spend Millions On State Ballot Initiatives

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Gun safety advocates are pouring tens of millions of dollars into Maine and Nevada to support ballot initiatives that would mandate background checks for gun sales in an effort to clinch state-level victories after years of failed drives in Congress.

The avalanche of money spent on supporting such initiatives ahead of the Nov. 8 vote could hand gun control organizations their biggest win since they failed to secure the passage of federal legislation after the massacre of 26 children and educators at a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school in December 2012.

Voters in California and Washington state will also cast ballots on gun control initiatives, and opinion polls show the measures are likely to pass in all four states.

Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun control group founded by billionaire former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has been leading the charge, throwing its financial weight behind three of the four measures. The organization plans to spend $25 million nationwide on the issue, almost as much as the powerful National Rifle Association has spent on television advertising for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

The right to own firearms is protected by the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and any efforts to restrict that guarantee are fought vehemently by gun rights advocates, who are highly influential within the Republican Party.

Victories by gun control groups in Maine and Nevada would mean that half of the U.S. population would live in states with expanded background checks, including private sales not involving a licensed dealer.

Gun control supporters say that would be a symbolic and strategically important threshold.

Opponents of the measures say the laws are poorly written, would do little to combat crime and would punish law-abiding gun owners.

A University of New Hampshire poll in late October found 52 percent of Maine residents support the measure and 43 percent oppose it. In Nevada, two polls in late October found a 16-percentage-point margin and a 25-point margin in favor of the initiative, respectively.

The measures come in a year that voters around the United States will weigh in on 71 citizen-submitted ballot initiatives on topics ranging from marijuana legalization to raising the minimum wage, the largest number in a decade, according to Ballotpedia.org, a website that tracks voting data.

EXPENSIVE BATTLEGROUND

Everytown described its strategy as part of an effort to copy the state-by-state tactic that helped legalize gay marriage across the United States, with Congress unwilling to pass universal background check legislation.

“One of the great advantages of going directly to the electorate is that you can go around the legislative bodies and make law,” said Zach Silk, a consultant who has worked with Everytown in Nevada and previously helped oversee Washington state’s 2014 successful background-check ballot initiative.

Nevada in particular has become an expensive battleground. Bloomberg has personally donated nearly $10 million to the effort there, and Nevadans for Background Checks had collected $14.3 million as of Oct. 18. That is nearly triple the $4.8 million that the leading opposition group, NRA Nevadans for Freedom, had received, all from the NRA.

In Maine, supporters of background checks have outspent opponents by more than 5-to-1, with the Everytown-backed Mainers for Responsible Gun Ownership Fund reporting $5.3 million in contributions as of last week.

The NRA did not respond to a request for comment on its campaign spending decisions.

Critics have accused Bloomberg of trying to buy victory.

“This law is convoluted and way overregulatory,” said David Trahan, the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and a former state legislator. “It reflects the person funding this initiative, Michael Bloomberg. His solutions are overkill, and they border on social engineering.”

But Everytown’s executive director, John Feinblatt, said it was the gun lobby that has tried to take power away from the citizenry.

“While the NRA can control legislators and the government, they can’t control the people,” he said.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

IMAGE: Guns are seen inside a display case at the Cabela’s store in Fort Worth, Texas, June 26, 2008. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

Judge Rules ‘Bridgegate’ Complaint Against Christie Can Proceed

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)

IMAGE: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 19, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young

‘Bridgegate’ Witness Says Governor Christie Backed Lane Closures

NEWARK, N.J. (Reuters) – New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was aware of and supported a plan to close lanes at the George Washington Bridge in 2013 in an act of political payback, a key prosecution witness testified Tuesday at the criminal trial of two former Christie associates.

David Wildstein, a former executive at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, told jurors in Newark federal court that he and Bill Baroni, another Port Authority executive, discussed the lane closure with Christie before a memorial service marking the 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks at the World Trade Center.

The testimony marked the first time federal prosecutors have presented specific evidence to back their contention that the Republican governor knew about the scandal that New York’s tabloids christened “Bridgegate” as it unfolded, despite his repeated denials.

Baroni and Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, are charged with fraud and other crimes for allegedly orchestrating the September 2013 closure of access lanes at the bridge in Fort Lee, New Jersey, to punish the town’s Democratic mayor for refusing to endorse Christie’s re-election bid.

“Mr. Baroni said, ‘Governor, I have to tell you, there’s a tremendous amount of traffic in Fort Lee this morning,'” Wildstein testified, adding that Baroni was using a sarcastic tone.

Baroni also said the mayor, Mark Sokolich, was “very frustrated” that his increasingly desperate calls to the Port Authority were being ignored.

“Governor Christie responded by saying, ‘I would imagine that he wouldn’t be getting his phone calls returned,'” Wildstein said. Prosecutors showed jurors a series of photographs depicting the three men laughing at the site that morning.

Christie has not been charged with wrongdoing. Wildstein pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

Spokesmen for the governor did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

The scandal helped torpedo Christie’s White House run, undercutting his bipartisan image.

Since taking the witness stand Friday, Wildstein has described coordinated efforts by Christie’s office to use the Port Authority’s power to punish local officials who failed to get behind his re-election campaign.

Mayor Steven Fulop of Jersey City had high-level meetings with officials from the Port Authority and other state agencies canceled after he declined to endorse, Wildstein testified.

Wildstein said Christie’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, told him the governor personally ordered Port Authority officials to disregard messages from Fulop.

(Editing by Scott Malone and Alan Crosby)

Photo: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie enters the debate hall before the first U.S. presidential debate between Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

In Pennsylvania Senate Race, Unfamiliar Battle Lines On Gun Rights

PHILADELPHIA, Sept 16 (Reuters) – As he seeks re-election to his U.S. Senate seat this November, Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey can make an unusual claim. He is the sole Republican nationwide running with the endorsement of top U.S. gun control advocates Gabby Giffords and Michael Bloomberg.

That pair of endorsements could give the first-term senator an edge over Democratic challenger Katie McGinty, a former environmental official in the White House and the Pennsylvania governor’s office. The race is one of a handful of close contests on Nov. 8 that could determine whether Republicans, currently with a 54-46 majority, maintain control of the Senate.

Both candidates are targeting educated moderate voters, particularly in the Philadelphia suburbs, many of whom may be turned off by the rhetoric of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, according to political analysts in Pennsylvania.

McGinty, who calls her support of gun control measures stronger than Toomey’s, is working hard to dismiss his endorsements from Giffords and Bloomberg, and has touted her own endorsement by a Pennsylvania anti-gun violence group.

Giffords, considered a hero by many gun control advocates, is a Democratic former U.S. congresswoman from Arizona who survived being shot in a 2011 assassination attempt and has become an activist for gun restrictions. Bloomberg is the billionaire former New York City mayor who considered a run for the presidency this year and, since leaving office, has focused much of his energy on gun control.

McGinty has called Toomey’s commitment to gun safety “paper thin” and notes that the Republican incumbent received an “A” rating from the influential National Rifle Association gun rights lobbying group during his first Senate run in 2010.

The issue of gun rights is potent in a nation where the right to “keep and bear arms” is enshrined in Constitution’s Second Amendment. The NRA opposes candidates who support gun control efforts including restricting the types of firearms people can own or expanding background checks required for gun buyers. Many Republicans side with the NRA, while many Democrats support gun control.

Opinion polls show Toomey’s race as virtually tied, even as Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton leads Trump by several percentage points in a state that has voted Democratic in the past six presidential contests, starting in 1992.

Pennsylvania is home both to rural communities where hunting is a popular pastime and big cities including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh where crime and gun violence are major concerns. Shifting attitudes on guns in the state have emboldened both parties in Pennsylvania to distance themselves from the NRA’s stance opposing almost any effort to restrict gun rights.

The state’s law mandating background checks for private handgun sales already goes beyond federal law, said Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

“Pennsylvania has a very substantial hunting and fishing culture,” Madonna said. “But hunters aren’t opposed to that.”

‘HARD THING TO DO’

Toomey’s position on guns sets him apart from most of his Republican U.S. Senate counterparts, as he tries to attract moderates while keeping conservative voters in his column.

In a telephone interview, Toomey said the Giffords and Bloomberg endorsements recognized “that what I did was a very hard thing to do politically.” He also emphasized his belief that most gun owners share his position.

“I’m a strong Second Amendment supporter,” Toomey said. “I see no contradiction between that support and insisting on background checks, so that people who’ve got no right to the Second Amendment because they’re dangerous criminals or they’re dangerously mentally ill or they’re terrorists, should be denied a firearm any way we can.”

Giffords has also endorsed Ohio Senator Mark Kirk, another Republican running for re-election, though Bloomberg has not weighed in on that race.

In an email, McGinty told Reuters Toomey is “no moderate” when it comes to gun violence.

“Time and again, he has sided with the gun lobby instead of doing what’s right to keep communities safe,” McGinty said. “Pat Toomey has completely run away from legislation to expand background checks, since it failed to pass the Senate three years ago.”

Toomey made headlines in 2013 following an elementary school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, when he and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia introduced legislation to expand background checks for gun buyers nationwide.

That legislation, fiercely opposed by the NRA, failed in the Senate, but Toomey gained praise from Democrats for bucking the majority of his party.

He voted for a similar bill after the mass shooting last year in San Bernardino, California, and supported Republican-backed legislation in Congress this year following the Orlando nightclub shooting to restrict access to firearms for people on official “terrorism watch lists.”

McGinty backed a stricter Democratic-backed version. None of the measures passed.

McGinty, who called Toomey’s gun control positions weak, favors more sweeping restrictions such as bans on military-style “assault weapons” and high-capacity ammunition clips that Toomey opposes.

In a recent television ad, McGinty used a clip of Toomey telling voters this summer that he had a “perfect record” with the NRA. The NRA has not yet released ratings or issued an endorsement in the race.

Toomey called McGinty a “political opportunist” and again pointed to his support from Giffords and Bloomberg.

“The idea that somehow they’ve all got it wrong and Katie McGinty, my opponent, has it right is just laughable,” he said. (Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Will Dunham)

Photo: U.S. Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) speaks to the 38th annual Conservative Political Action Conference meeting in Washington DC, U.S. February 10, 2011.   REUTERS/Larry Downing/File Photo

Chris Christie ‘Flat Out Lied’ About ‘Bridgegate’ Scandal

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A former aide to Chris Christie said in a text message that the New Jersey governor “flat out lied” when he said senior staff members were not involved in the “Bridgegate” scandal in 2013, according to a court filing on Wednesday.

The new details were revealed in a document filed in New Jersey federal court by Bill Baroni, former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who is one of two former Christie allies facing criminal charges in the case.

Speculation has persisted for years about whether Christie or members of his staff were aware of the alleged plot to close two New York City-bound lanes at the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee as retribution against the town’s mayor, who had refused to back Christie’s re-election campaign.

Christie addressed the controversy at a Dec. 13, 2013, news conference, a day after the state legislature issued several subpoenas in its investigation of the lane closures.

“I’ve made it very clear to everybody on my senior staff that if anyone had any knowledge about this that they needed to come forward to me and tell me about it, and they’ve all assured me that they don’t,” Christie said at the time.

Christina Renna, former director of Christie’s intergovernmental affairs office, immediately sent a text message to Peter Sheridan, a member of Christie’s re-election campaign, according to the filing.

“Are you listening? He just flat out lied about senior staff and Stepien not being involved,” her first text said, referring to Bill Stepien, who managed Christie’s two gubernatorial campaigns.

In a subsequent text, Renna said “it could be bad” if emails were later uncovered through a subpoena or court discovery.

Christie’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The governor, who has not been accused of wrongdoing, has denied any knowledge of the alleged scheme.

Renna, now vice president of the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey, and Sheridan, who is working for the state Republican Party, also did not immediately respond.

Stepien could not immediately be reached for comment.

Jury selection will begin Sept. 12 for Baroni and Bridget Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, who face charges including conspiracy and fraud. Another former Port Authority official, David Wildstein, has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with federal prosecutors.

The details of the texts came in a filing by Baroni’s lawyers seeking to exclude certain evidence from trial.

The document said it “appears to be clear” that Renna deleted the texts and did not disclose their existence when she testified under oath before lawmakers.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Bill Trott)

Photo: Republican U.S. presidential candidate and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks during a forum for lower polling candidates held by Fox Business Network before the 2016 U.S. Republican presidential candidates debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S. November 10, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young

U.S. Appeals Court Weighs Revealing ‘Bridgegate’ Co-Conspirators

A U.S. appeals court on Monday heard nearly two hours of argument on whether to release publicly a list of unindicted co-conspirators in the “Bridgegate” criminal case involving allies of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

The three-judge panel at the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia did not immediately rule, and a rapid-fire volley of skeptical questions aimed at lawyers for both sides made it difficult to predict how the court was leaning.

A lawyer representing an individual on the list, identified only as “John Doe,” urged the court to throw out a lower judge’s decision to release the information sought by a group of media companies.

“It’s not about what they would like to know,” said Doe’s attorney, Jenny Parker. “It’s about what they are legally entitled to know.”

But Bruce Rosen, a lawyer for the media, argued the public’s right to know was paramount.

“This is an extremely important issue that goes to how deeply this conspiracy went into the government,” he said.

The list could shed light on the extent of the scheme to shut down access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in 2013 in what prosecutors claim was an act of political revenge against a local mayor.

Christie, who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination this year, has denied any knowledge of the plot, but the scandal has remained a source of embarrassment.

The list includes individuals that prosecutors believe were part of the conspiracy but are not facing criminal charges. Prosecutors have given defense lawyers the information as part of pretrial proceedings.

Monday’s argument largely focused on a technical issue: whether the list was a “bill of particulars,” a document that can be subject to public release, or an informal discovery letter that would normally stay sealed.

Paul Fishman, the U.S. Attorney in New Jersey, argued in support of Doe’s position, saying prosecutors should be allowed to hand over such information to defendants without fear it will be revealed.

As an alternative, the court is considering whether to release all the names but that of John Doe, an option both Doe and the government oppose.

Three people have been charged in the case. William Baroni, a former official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Bridget Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, are scheduled to face trial in September.

David Wildstein, also a former official at the Port Authority, has pleaded guilty and is cooperating.

 

(Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York; Editing by Tom Brown and David Gregorio)

Photo: A giant American flag hangs from the West tower of the George Washington Bridge in between New York and New Jersey ahead of the U.S.-Germany 2014 World Cup Group G soccer match June 26, 2014.  REUTER/Mike Segar  

Appeals Court Delays Release Of NJ’s ‘Bridgegate’ Co-Conspirators List

A U.S. appeals court on Tuesday postponed a deadline for prosecutors in New Jersey to reveal a list of unindicted co-conspirators in the so-called “Bridgegate” criminal case involving allies of Governor Chris Christie.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted a last-minute emergency request from one of the people on the list, less than two hours before U.S. prosecutors were set to file the names in federal court in New Jersey.

The document could make clear how many Christie associates were aware of an alleged scheme to close down lanes at the George Washington Bridge in what prosecutors claim was an act of political retribution against a local mayor.

Christie, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for his party’s presidential nomination this year, has denied knowledge of the plot.

U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton had ordered the list made public at the request of several media companies.

But one of the alleged co-conspirators anonymously filed an emergency appeal, arguing his reputation will be irreparably besmirched.

In a brief order, the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia scheduled a hearing for June 6. The court is also considering whether that hearing should be closed to the public, presumably to preserve the individual’s anonymity.

The unindicted co-conspirators are those who prosecutors believe joined in the plot but have not been criminally charged.

Bruce Rosen, a lawyer for the media companies, said in an email, “We’re looking forward to making our case before the full 3rd Circuit panel that the public has a First Amendment right to see the list of unindicted co-conspirators.”

Thus far, three people have been charged. William Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Bridget Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, are scheduled to face trial in September.

David Wildstein, also a former official at the Port Authority, the agency that oversees major transportation facilities in the New York City area, has pleaded guilty and is cooperating.

Prosecutors say they orchestrated the September 2013 lane closure in Fort Lee, New Jersey, as payback against the Democratic mayor for refusing to endorse Christie’s re-election bid. The ensuing traffic wreaked havoc in town, causing massive delays and impeding emergency responders.

The case has proven embarrassing for Christie, who is heading presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s transition team. The trial will unfold in the heat of the presidential campaign ahead of Election Day, Nov. 8.

Photo: The George Washington Bridge toll booths are pictured in Fort Lee, New Jersey January 9, 2014. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri