Christie aides face legal challenge over 'Bridgegate' subpoenas

A view of the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey
A view of the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey

Two of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s former staff members will attempt to convince a judge on Tuesday morning that they shouldn’t have to hand over documents related to the seemingly politically-motivated lane closures on the George Washington Bridge.

Lawyers representing Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s fired deputy chief of staff, and William Stepien, his former two-time campaign manager, will make their cases in Mercer County’s state Superior Court before Judge Mary Jacobson.

Kelly and Stepien have both pleaded the Fifth Amendment, insisting that handing over any information to the New Jersey legislative committee investigating the September lane closures would violate their rights against self-incrimination. They also point out that they are being investigated by federal authorities and handing over information that could reveal personal information unrelated to the bridge closures.

According to a court filing from Friday, lawyers for the legislative panel argue witnesses cannot “assert a blanket refusal to comply with a subpoena” and must raise “specific objections to particular questions or requests.”

Meanwhile, attorneys for Stepien and Kelly have criticized Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat who is co-chairing the panel investigating the lane closures.

“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 he’s confident about the argument the panel’s lawyers have put forward and that “there’s no rush to judgment. There’s a rush to ask questions.” 

Kelly, of course, 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. Correspondence has also shown Stepien calling the mayor of Fort Lee an “idiot” and suggesting he may have been aware of the plan to close the lanes back in September.

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.

Wisniewski said that approximately half of those subpoenaed have turned in some type of response. 

Ben Dworkin, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said no matter the outcome of Tuesday’s hearing, it’s likely the losing side will make an appeal, and that the decision could go all the way to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

“It’s the opening shot,” said Dworkin. “It doesn’t mean it’s the end of the fight." He added that “this court battle delays the investigation from moving forward and therefore it remains a political cloud over Trenton and the Christie Administration.”

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 unfolded. So-called “Bridgegate” 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.