GEORGE WASHINGTON BRIDGE EPISODE
The George Washington Bridge, which runs between New Jersey and New York City, is at the center of a brewing scandal for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. E-mails and text messages suggest Christie’s top aide (now ex-aide) and allies at the Port Authority engineered traffic jams in Fort Lee, N.J., last September to punish its Democratic mayor.
TRENTON, N.J. — The lawyer for a New Jersey Legislature joint committee probing the George Washington Bridge lane closure hinted in court Tuesday that more discussions about the incident took place involving two of the governor’s key aides.
Lawyer Reid Schar argued that Gov. Chris Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and former Christie campaign manager William Stepien should be forced to turn over documents that the joint panel has subpoenaed. He said the committee issued “very focused subpoenas” and was not engaged in a fishing expedition.
Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson pushed the issue with Schar on whether more evidence exists than investigators know already.
“You’re making inferences that more exist,” Jacobson said.
“We know that more exist,” Schar said.
Kelly is suspected of initiating lane closures to the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson River that tied up traffic in Fort Lee, N.J., for four days starting the first day of school Sept. 9. The suspicion is based on e-mail she appears to have sent from a personal account to an associate at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Following the closures, as the incident became more political, Stepien was brought into a discussion of a published story about fallout and replied that the mayor of Fort Lee, who had complained about Port Authority response to the closures, was an “idiot.”
In court, Stepien’s lawyer argued that the subpoena was forcing his client to attest to the existence of documents and be a witness against himself. The Fifth Amendment offers protections against that action, Kevin Marino said.
Existing and known e-mails, which Marino read in court, “do not permit the fair inference that there are other documents,” he said.
In rebuttal, Schar said the existence of additional documents is not an open question.
“I’m not guessing, judge,” he said. “I know it because I’ve seen them.”
At the close of the hearing, Jacobson said she would be issuing a ruling soon but did not estimate a date.
The ruling is likely to be issued after Monday. Jacobson gave the lawyers until then to submit briefs on the legislative committee’s power to hold those not in compliance with subpoenas in contempt.
In New Jersey, the Legislature can hold people in contempt if they don’t answer questions or provide documents that lawmakers subpoena. From there, contempt charges are forwarded to the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office where the county attorney can decide whether to pursue a case in court. The charge is a misdemeanor.
At least twice, Stepien’s lawyer argued that the legislative panel was misrepresenting case law in its arguments in favor of the subpoenas. That misrepresentation was “astonishing,” he said.
In addition, Marino ridiculed Schar’s claim that allowing Stepien and Kelly to not respond to the subpoenas would end all investigations, saying it was a “sky is falling” argument.
The subpoenas to Kelly and Stepien were among more than 20 issued to the governor’s office, employees and executives at the Port Authority and Christie’s campaign. Kelly and Stepien say that because federal investigators are probing deeply into their lives — asking questions of Kelly’s father, ex-husband and former in-laws, and questioning Stepien’s landlord — that they have a right not to cooperate.
Turning over documents would violate their Fifth Amendment and Fourth Amendment rights to not incriminate themselves and not be subject to unreasonable search, their lawyers say. Kelly attended the hearing; Stepien did not.
Christie’s former deputy chief of staff is a central figure in the lane-closure scandal. Her e-mail to former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey executive David Wildstein connected the governor’s office to the closings.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote Aug. 13 to Wildstein.
“Got it,” Wildstein replied.
Stepien, a two-time campaign manager and a former deputy chief of staff for Christie, said in legal papers that investigators went to his landlord asking “was he married, was he a rowdy tenant, did he pay his rent on time,” Marino wrote.
He was mentioned in the probe in a different context. Following the closures, as the incident became more political, Stepien was brought into a discussion of a published story about the fallout and replied that the mayor of Fort Lee, who had complained about the Port Authority response to the closures, was an “idiot.”
Christie fired him for that remark. He also fired Kelly for her involvement.
Jacobson, speaking with Kelly’s lawyer, expressed doubt that the existing documents were the only ones his client may have had concerning the lane closures.
“‘Time for traffic problems in Fort Lee’ — it didn’t come out of thin air,” Jacobson told Michael Critchley, adding that earlier communications had to exist.
But Critchley refused to concede that Kelly sent the e-mails Wildstein says she did. He contended that the burden of proof is on government.
“The Fifth Amendment is liberally interpreted and broadly applied,” he said.
Later, Critchley argued again that the breadth of the Fifth Amendment was significant.
“Don’t blame me,” he said. “Blame James Madison.”