In a blow to the New Jersey legislative committee investigating the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal, a state judge ruled Wednesday that two central figures involved in the scheme do not have to turn over related documents.
Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Stepien, Christie’s former two-time campaign manager, fought subpoenas issued by the state panel. Both invoked the Fifth Amendment, insisting that handing over any information to the committee looking into the September 2013 lane closures would violate their rights against self-incrimination.
State Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson said in her 98-page opinion that the subpoenas were too broad and that Stepien and Kelly could indeed self-incriminate themselves if they turn in material. There is an ongoing, parallel federal investigation into the scandal.“It is reasonable for Mr. Stepien and Ms. Kelly to fear that they currently face the hazard of prosecution in the concurrent federal investigation,” wrote Jacobson. The decision is likely to be appealed.
“The committee will consult with its counsel and consider its options,” said Democratic state Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who is co-chairing the state investigatory panel. He added: “The committee felt it was very much in the public interest to seek to compel the production of these documents, but as we’ve said before, there’s more than one method to gather information in an investigation, and we will consider alternatives. We will continue exploring every avenue to find out what happened with this threat to public safety and abuse of government power.”
Kelly was fired by Christie in January after e-mails were made public showing she sent a now-infamous message in August to former Port Authority official David Wildstein, writing “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” The message apparently kicked off the lane closures. Separate documents showed Stepien calling the mayor of Fort Lee – on the New Jersey side of the bridge – an “idiot” and suggest he may have been aware of the plan to close the lanes.
The judge’s decision was handed down shortly after Christie wound up a friendly town hall in Fairfield, N.J.
Unlike several previous town halls, there were no hecklers. The only time the scandal over the closure of the George Washington Bridge access lanes came up was when one person asked who was paying for Wildstein’s lawyers. Christie said he didn’t know but was positive it wasn’t the state.
A newly emboldened Christie has been making himself more available to the media after an internal review – authorized by the governor and reportedly costing state taxpayers more than $1 million – cleared him of any wrongdoing relating the lane closure scandal last September.
The internal review also concluded that there was no evidence to support Democratic Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s claims that members of Christie’s administration threatened to withhold Hurricane Sandy funds unless she supported a real estate development project.
But so-called “Bridgegate” isn’t necessarily in Christie’s rearview mirror. The state panel said on Tuesday that it will give Team Christie’s law firm, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, until the end of next week to hand over documents related to their own review before facing a subpoena of their own. Given Jacobson’s decision, however, it is not clear if the law firm would have to abide. The internal report, released two weeks ago, cites interviews with 70 people, blames Wildstein and Kelly for the scheme, which was seemingly an act of political retribution.
Meanwhile, there are also reports that Wildstein has been meeting with federal investigators conducting their own review. U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman’s office told msnbc it would not comment on ongoing investigations and multiple requests for comment from Wildstein’s lawyer were not returned.
Christie – who once led the pack in the nascent race to be the GOP’s presidential nominee in 2016 – has consistently denied knowing about the lane closure plan. A new Rutgers-Eagleton poll released Tuesday showed that Christie’s approval ratings, which were in free fall, have stabilized, hovering at 55%. Meanwhile, 41% disapprove. However, the survey showed the majority – 63% – said Christie’s own internal review was not objective. Just 22% believe Christie’s explanation of what happened.
The town hall audience at the Winston Churchill Elementary School in Fairfield was receptive to Christie. The governor fielded questions on several subjects, including the state’s ballooning pension system, medicinal marijuana (the governor is willing to consider changes to make sure the right form of the drug is medically available for minors), and why he vetoed raising the minimum wage (it was “too much, too soon”).
Despite the controversies, the governor has kept up with an ambitious national schedule, appearing at conservative events and fundraising for the Republican Governors Association, which he chairs.
Next month, Christie will attend a Jewish philanthropy event in New York City alongside Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson. Last month, the governor came under scrutiny when he was at an event with Adelson in Las Vegas for a Republican Jewish Coalition event. Chrsitie referred to the settlements in the West Bank as “occupied territories” and later apologized privately to Adelson.