A legal showdown is in the works between a New Jersey legislative committee investigating the seemingly political-motivated lane closures on the George Washington Bridge and two former aides to Republican Gov. Chris Christie who are refusing to cooperate.
Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson has ordered Bridget Anne Kelly and William Stepien, who have been subpoenaed but unwilling to hand over any documents related to the traffic scandal, to defend their decision in court on March 11. It could lead to the two being cited for contempt.
Kelly, Christie’s since-fired deputy chief of staff and Stepien, Christie’s two-time campaign manager, have pled the Fifth Amendment, insisting handing over any information would violate their rights against self-incrimination. Kelly had written the now-infamous email in August calling for “some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” the town on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge. Documents have also shown Stepien calling the mayor of Fort Lee an “idiot” and suggest he may have been aware of the plan to close the lanes back in September.
A total of 38 subpoenas have been served by the legislative panel to key members of the Port Authority and Christie’s administration and campaign. But information has been slow to roll in, with some, including Stepien and Kelly, refusing to comply and others who have been granted extensions.
Democratic Senator Loretta Weinberg, who is co-chairing the investigation, told msnbc that “it’s frustrating” but “I’ve told people from the beginning that this isn’t going to be solved in two weeks. It’s slow and we’re patient.”
Weinberg says she is unaware of any new documents coming in from the latest round of subpoenas.
So what happens if more potential witnesses refuse to cooperate?
For starters, it will inevitably slow the probe. The committee is purely investigatory and is unable to grant immunity or give indictments. Ben Dworkin, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University said: “If they keep running into roadblock after roadblock, there will be a certain point in people asking ‘what are you doing?’”
But many, Dworkin predicted, would eventually hand over information. “Lots of people may feel like they have nothing to hide. Also, it would be a tremendous political blow to the Christie Administration because there will be a public perception that everyone is hiding something.”
Weinberg said: “When someone’s in court, you have a 50/50 chance. I’m optimistic about the fact that I think our attorney has outlined sound legal ground why someone cannot take the Fifth Amendment on [handing over] documents.”
But even if the judge next month decides Stepien and Kelly must hand over documents, the chapter in the investigation is still unlikely to come to a close anytime soon.
“I think it’s clear regardless what she decides, we should certainly expect an appeal from whoever feels they lost,” Dworkin said.
Christie has denied any prior knowledge of the lane closures and is forging ahead. The governor was in Washington D.C. over the weekend for the National Governors Association winter meeting. He’ll deliver his state budget address on Tuesday and will hold a town hall meeting – his second of the year – on Wednesday in Long Hill. On Thursday, Christie plans to fundraise in Boston on behalf of the Republican Governors Association, which he chairs, alongside failed GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.