George Washington Bridge
George Washington Bridge (Image: Allan Tannenbaum / Newscom)

New Jersey election law regulators on Tuesday said that Gov. Chris Christie’s re-election campaign committee can use unspent funds—and raise more—to pay its legal fees and expenses to comply with document subpoenas in the Bridgegate investigation.

Ronald DeFilippis, chairman of the Election Law Enforcement Commission, said that the spending purpose is legal and that it is important for the campaign to be able to respond to the subpoenas quickly.

“If they don’t have access to the funds they will be constricted. That’s the overriding thing,” DeFilippis said. “Dollars are irrelevant now to the people of New Jersey. They want answers.”

The committee’s attorney, Mark Sheridan of Patton Boggs, told the commissioners that it will need it remaining funds on hand, plus an unspecified additional amount, not only to pay the firm’s fees but also to hire a vendor to sift through unknown number of emails, texts and other communications between its staff, the governor’s office and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge.

The committee has $126,608 at present after spending nearly $12.2 million to get Christie re-elected last year.

The committee has been hit with subpoenas from the U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman and the Joint New Jersey Legislative Select Committee on Investigation, who are looking into the circumstances surrounding the George Washington Bridge access lane closures that crippled traffic in Fort Lee from Sept. 9 to Sept. 13.

Sheridan told ELEC that the committee needs money to cooperate with both investigations. The data mining operation that will be required is “rather simple and straightforward,” he said, but there will be expenses incurred.

Before using the leftover money and raising more, Sheridan sought an advisory opinion from ELEC, which regulates how publicly funded campaigns generate funds and spend them.

New Jersey law prohibits using campaign funds to pay for a criminal defense, but the commissioners agreed with Sheridan that the committee is not, at present, a target in a criminal investigation but only a witness called on to supply documents.

“There is no suggestion that the governor or the committee is the target of an investigation,” Sheridan said.

Sheridan stressed that no campaign funds will be used to pay for the legal defense of any former campaign employee who may become the target of criminal investigation. He noted that Christie’s ousted campaign manager, Bill Stepien, has retained his own counsel.

The ELEC commissioners said the committee must immediately halt all spending and fund raising if it learns that it has become a target. Sheridan said it would.

Sheridan said campaign staffers often used their own cell phones and computers to send and receive messages. The committee will ask them to allow their devices to be examined by the committee’s vendor. If those former employees refuse to comply, the committee will notify investigators, Sheridan said.

Commissioner Amos Saunders, a retired Superior Court judge, initially expressed concern about giving the committee a “blank check” but said he was satisfied that any money not been spent after the investigations are over will be turned over to the state.

“Raise a lot of money,” he told Sheridan.

Saunders and DeFilippis, an accountant and veteran campaign treasurer, were the only voting commissioners. There is a vacancy on the four-member commission and Democratic Commissioner Walter Timpone, a former assistant U.S. attorney now with Morristown’s McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, recused since he briefly represented Kelly.

Both DeFilippis and Saunders, of Carlet, Garrison, Klein & Zaretsky in Clifton, are Republicans.

ELEC’s decision may be challenged at the Appellate Division by plaintiffs in a potential class-action lawsuit, GW Car Service LLC v. State of New Jersey, which has been filed in Bergen County.

One of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Michael Epstein, wrote a letter to ELEC asking it to reject the committee’s request, saying the funds could be targeted if the class action is successful.

Epstein, of the Epstein Law firm in Rochelle Park, says that since ELEC has not issued a written opinion he could not say whether it would be appealed. “I do believe it’s an inappropriate use of campaign funds,” he says.