Although a New Jersey judge ruled on Wednesday that two of Gov. Chris Christie’s former allies at the center of so-called “Bridgegate” don’t have to turn over related documents to a state committee investigating the scandal, the Republican shouldn’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet.
That’s because Judge Mary Jacobson’s decision indicates just how seriously federal prosecutors -- also investigating the George Washington Bridge lane closings -- are taking the case, according to legal experts and political analysts.
In her court opinion, Jacobson said Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Stepien, the governor’s former two-time campaign manager, could indeed face prosecution for “official misconduct in either state of federal court, and the conduct that could form the basis for the prosecutions is exactly the type of conduct being investigated by the committee.”
The judge added that it’s reasonable for Kelly and Stepien -- who have been fighting the state subpoenas and invoked the Fifth Amendment -- “to fear that they currently face the hazard of prosecution in the concurrent federal investigation.” Jacobson also said the subpoenas were “overbroad” but left open the possibility the two could testify if they are offered immunity from prosecution.
Daniel French, who served as a United States Attorney for the Northern District of New York, told msnbc.com that Jacobson’s decision merely gives credence to the allegations. “I don’t think it’s a win for Chris Christie,” said French. “This is not a vindication that his office did nothing wrong. This was an affirmation that [Kelly and Stepien] would have exposure.”
The governor -- once considered a front-runner in the 2016 presidential race -- has repeatedly denied having prior knowledge of the plan to cause traffic jams, seemingly for political retribution.
French added that federal authorities, in comparison to the state legislative panel, have broader powers to get information from Kelly and Stepien. That includes subpoenaing phone records from mobile carriers and seizing personal computers.
Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, agreed that Jacobson’s decision confirms the issue is not dead. “It dismisses the idea that the state panel was motivated by partisanship or personality. The judge gives credence to the claims that there has been criminal activity.”
Stepien and Kelly don’t see it that way, however.
Michael Critchley, Kelly’s attorney said in a statement his client was “very thrilled” with the ruling. Stepien’s lawyer, Kevin Marino went further, saying the judge’s decision “represents a complete vindication of Bill Stepien,” even calling him the “finest political consultant in America.”
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.
John Wisniewski, the Democratic state Assemblyman who is spearheading the state investigation, said his committee is considering its options following Jacobson’s ruling.
“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,” said Wisniewski.
The judge’s decision, however, is a blow for Democrats in the sense the state committee has been very public about its findings. The federal investigation is likely to be much more secretive in nature, said Harrison.
The state panel “enabled Democrats to make hay out of this issue and brought attention to their cause. They could remind the public about the allegations against the Christie Administration,” she said. The federal investigation “will announce the outcome but isn’t keeping the public apprised.”
Jacobson’s ruling comes two weeks after an internal review – authorized by the governor himself and reportedly costing state taxpayers more than $1 million – cleared him of any wrongdoing relating the lane closure scandal last September.
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.
Monmouth University pollster and political analyst Patrick Murray said the state committee now has a decision to make on whether to try to make their subpoenas more specific or if they are able to grant immunity.
“This is a game of chess. The judge’s decision forces the committee to sacrifice their bishop. That’s a big deal, but we’ve got a long way to go in this game. The governor is certainly not in the clear yet,” said Murray.