Chris Christie Faces New Federal Criminal Investigation

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during a Town Hall Meeting with families affected by Superstorm Sandy at Belmar Borough Municipal Building on March 25, 2014 in Belmar, New Jersey.
Chris Christie speaks at a town hall meeting in March 2014. Photo: Kena Betancur/Getty Images

How many investigations does it take before a popular governor is no longer treated like a viable presidential candidate? Our quest to find out continued on Thursday when we learned that Chris Christie and his administration are the target of another federal criminal investigation — not to be confused with the mostly Bridgegate-related probes from New Jersey’s U.S. attorney, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, the Port Authority inspector general, and a New Jersey legislative committee. The International Business Times reports that the U.S. attorney’s office in New Jersey has interviewed Bennett Barlyn, who claims he was fired from the Hunterdon County prosecutor’s office after he complained about the administration dismissing indictments against several Christie supporters.

While the allegations were first reported years ago, they only reached the federal level in the past few months, after Barlyn sent a letter to New Jersey’s U.S. Attorney, Paul Fishman. Barlyn, a former Hunterdon County assistant prosecutor, has long maintained that he and two colleagues were abruptly fired in 2010, shortly after they indicted the Republican county sheriff and her two deputies. The New York Times summed up the allegations in a front-page story from 2013:

The 43-count grand jury indictment read like a primer in small-town abuse of power. It accused Sheriff Deborah Trout of hiring deputies without conducting proper background checks, and making employees sign loyalty oaths. Her deputies, the indictment charged, threatened one of their critics and manufactured fake police badges for a prominent donor to Gov. Chris Christie.

One of the deputies reportedly assured a reporter that the newly elected governor would “have this whole thing thrown out,” and sure enough, the indictment was quickly dismissed. New Jersey attorney general Paula Dow, who was appointed by Christie, took over the Hunterdon prosecutor’s office, and her office moved to have the indictments overturned because they were filled with unspecified “legal and factual deficiencies.” After a judge dismissed the indictments, all of the evidence was shipped to the attorney general’s office in Trenton, which is unusual.

Four grand jurors told the Times that they were angry the case was thrown out. “The prosecutor was meticulous and so were we,” said one juror. “Really, the case felt like a no-brainer until the state killed it.”

Barlyn says he was fired shortly after he raised objections, and told he wasn’t entitled to an explanation for his dismissal. “Three weeks later I received a one-page faxed dismissal letter from the director of the Division of Criminal Justice,” he told ABC News. “Again, no reason was given of why I was terminated after 18 years of being … a state and county prosecutor with a pretty good rep.”

In 2010, Barlyn filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against the Christie administration, which is now in the discovery phase. Former attorney general Dow has said that Barlyn was fired for “legitimate business reasons” and the indictment was flawed. The Christie administration has fought the release of of the grand-jury transcripts, which would allow others to assess that claim.

A Christie spokesman called Barlyn’s story “conspiratorial nonsense” and insisted that the governor “never recalled meeting or talking with a single one of these oddball characters” his administration allegedly helped. (Christie does know pharmaceutical executive Robert Hariri, a major campaign donor and member of the governor’s transition team, who allegedly received a fake law-enforcement ID card from the Hunterdon sheriff’s office.)

Barlyn says he was interviewed for about an hour on Wednesday by two criminal investigators from the U.S. Department of Justice. It’s unclear if they’ve interviewed anyone else, and whether they will bring criminal charges against anyone in the Christie administration remains to be seen.