TRENTON N.J. – Lawyers for two of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s former staff members attempted to convince a judge on Tuesday that their clients shouldn’t have to hand over documents related to the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge.
Judge Mary Jacobson, of the Mercer County State Superior Court, said at the end of a four-hour hearing in a packed court room that she will make a decision on the matter at a later date. “I’m not going to estimate on a particular date, but I understand the importance of getting the decision sooner rather than later,” Jacobson said.
Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, made her first public appearance in court Tuesday after it was revealed she sent the now-infamous email that called for “some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Bill Stepien, Christie’s former two-time campaign manager, did not come to court but was represented by his lawyer.
Stepien and Kelly’s court challenge is seen as crucial to so-called “Bridgegate.” If the two are ordered by the judge to hand over all of their correspondence relating to the lane closure scheme, the public may get answers to several remaining questions, including if Christie was involved, just how much he knew, and why exactly the lanes were closed down in the first place
Kelly, who arrived in a pink coat and ignored reporters on her way to the court room, did not make any remarks. After the lawyers made their arguments, Kelly – blinking back tears – stood beside her lawyer, Michael Critchley, who answered reporters’ questions on her behalf.
When asked why Kelly decided to come to court, Critchley said: “Her life has been affected dramatically, and today the court was going to discuss an issue of significance that affects her life, and she wanted to be here to show that it was important…and that she’s not someone who’s running away and living the life of a hermit.”
Stepien’s lawyer, Kevin Marino, insisted to reporters that his client is an “innocent man who is being ensnared by ambiguous circumstances … and had his life upended.” Marino added that Stepien personally decided not to attend. “This is a legal argument, not a trial,” he said.
Kelly and Stepien have both pleaded the Fifth Amendment, insisting that handing over any information to the New Jersey legislative committee investigating the September 2013 lane closures would violate their rights against self-incrimination.
Reid Schar, the lawyer representing the panel investigating the lane closures, insisted in court that the committee issued “very focused subpoenas” on a “very narrow topic” and that they are “not a fishing expedition of any sort.”
“They can’t just blankedly say ‘we’re not going to turn over anything’ … we have very much met reasonable particularity,” he said.
Schar, who helped convict former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on corruption charges, noted there seems to have been a concerted effort by Stepien and Kelly to forward emails from their work accounts to personal email accounts of staffers. “They can’t take public information and try to privatize it by taking it off those servers,” he said. Schar said that based on the emails that have surfaced so far, “Ms. Kelly is critical to what occurred.”
At one point, Judge Jacobson said it seemed like Schar was assuming there were additional emails. “I’m just not sure where that falls on the spectrum,” she said.
Jacobson later noted Kelly’s “time for some traffic email” didn’t “come out of thin air,” which could indicate to committee members that there would be additional emails.
Critchley maintained such documents – if they even existed – could be used against Kelly in the future and said the Fifth Amendment existed as a “privilege” to protect the innocent.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg – two Democrats who are co-chairing the investigatory panel – were both in attendance.
The attorneys for Stepien and Kelly have criticized Wisniewski. “That a politician armed with subpoena power and spoiling for higher office—particularly one who has openly prejudged his investigation and whose counsel is consulting with federal prosecutors overseeing a similar investigation … is a problem for another day,” wrote Stepien’s attorney Kevin Marino in a legal brief.
Lawyers for Kelly wrote in a filing on March 6 that Wisnieweski has participated in a “rush to judgment,” citing him for telling the press that “laws have been broken,” closing access lanes is a “crime” and using the words “cover up.”
Wisniewski told msnbc.com on Monday that there’s “there’s no rush to judgment. There’s a rush to ask questions.”
The state legislative panel has issued a total of 38 subpoenas to key members of the Port Authority and Christie’s administration and campaign. But information has been slow to roll in, with Kelly and Stepien pleading the Fifth Amendment and others being granted extensions to comply with the subpoenas.
Wisniewski said that approximately half of those subpoenaed have turned in some type of response.
Christie has denied any prior knowledge of the lane closings. The Republican governor will hold a town hall meeting in Mount Laurel on Thursday – his fourth such public appearance since the scandal surfaced. “Bridgegate,” as the scandal has been called, has yet to come up at any of the town halls this year.
Polls show Christie’s popularity has taken a big hit in the aftermath of the scandal.
Outside the courtroom Tuesday, Kelly was asked if she feared federal prosecution. Critchley answered for her: “We’re not afraid of anything…we’re innocent. The fact that we’re making arguments grounded in the Fifth Amendment should not be construed by anyone that we are implicating that our clients are guilty of anything.”