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Lawmakers drop bridge scandal case as taxpayer toll rises

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is seen in

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is seen in a file photo. Photo Credit: AP

TRENTON, N.J. - The state's top Democratic legislative leaders said Wednesday they're putting the George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal behind them at the same time the cost to taxpayers for the legal fallout is still going up.

Democratic Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto and Senate President Steve Sweeney said at a conference of towns in Atlantic City that they are moving forward after a trial that ended in the convictions of two former allies of Republican Gov. Chris Christie.

"At this point we need to move our agenda forward," Sweeney said.

Added Prieto: "I'm not looking to start an impeachment proceeding at this time."

Their announcement, which included the caveat that their staffs are still scouring federal court transcripts to determine whether further inquiries are needed, comes just as documents released Tuesday showed the state will spend up to $10,000 for an attorney to defend Christie after a resident filed an official misconduct complaint against him. The complaint alleges Christie failed to order subordinates to re-open the bridge access lanes from Fort Lee.

A letter dated Oct. 14 from Attorney General Christopher Porrino to attorney Craig Carpenito outlines the arrangement and was released in response to an open records request. It specifies that attorney's fees per hour will be $150.

Prieto, who would decide whether the Assembly pursues impeachment proceedings against Christie, said he would monitor the hearings over the complaint to determine whether further action is necessary.

Two of Christie's former aides were convicted this month for their roles in a plot to close the vehicular lanes and create traffic jams in Fort Lee, and a third ally pleaded guilty and testified against them. Prosecutors say the plot was meant to harm Fort Lee's Democratic mayor, who didn't endorse Christie for re-election. The bridge, among the world's busiest, links Fort Lee and New York City.

Christie has denied any wrongdoing and maintains he had no knowledge of the plot despite testimony that he was told about the lane closures before they happened and while the epic traffic jams were ongoing.

The money to defend Christie is in addition to the $11 million taxpayers spent for another law firm hired by him to investigate the September 2013 lane closures and more than $1 million incurred by a special investigative legislative committee. Prieto said earlier that additional hearings could prove costly to taxpayers with little prospect for uncovering new details.

A superior court judge set a Jan. 11 date to hear the governor's motion to appeal the criminal summons in the complaint, filed by retired Teaneck firefighter William Brennan. A separate hearing on whether to appoint a special prosecutor in the matter is scheduled for Nov. 30.

The complaint alleges Christie "knowingly refrained from ordering that his subordinates take all necessary action to re-open local access lanes" that had been "closed with the purpose to injure Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich" for not endorsing Christie's re-election bid. It claims residents were "deprived the benefit and enjoyment of their community."

Christie has not been charged in what prosecutors call a political payback scheme. His office has called Brennan a "serial complainant with a history of abusing the system."

Brennan has disputed that characterization of him, saying, "If these people stopped breaking the law, I wouldn't be a serial complainant."

Carpenito earlier told a municipal court judge the complaint was "intentionally misleading" and what Christie knew about the closures was already thoroughly investigated.

Official misconduct is considered a second-degree offense in New Jersey and carries a possible sentence of five to 10 years in prison upon conviction.

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