Loretta Weinberg
Loretta Weinberg ()

The committee of the New Jersey Legislature investigating last fall’s closure of local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge doesn’t call any witness to give testimony without first checking with federal prosecutors.

Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, the co-chair of the Legislative Select Committee on Investigation, said the committee’s special counsel, Reid Schar of Jenner & Block in Chicago, confers with U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman before any witness is called.

Weinberg made the disclosure at a July 17 hearing, responding to questions posed by Sen. Kevin O’Toole, R-Passaic, who wanted to know whether Fishman had provided the committee with a “do-not-call list” that had not been provided to all of its members.

According to a Wall Street Journal report, the potential witnesses Fishman has put off-limits to the committee, at least for the present, include Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s former chief counsel, Charles McKenna; Christie’s top political strategist, Michael DuHaime; Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Executive Director Patrick Foye; Foye’s deputy, Deborah Gramiccioni; Port Authority Deputy General Counsel and former state Supreme Court nominee Phillip Kwon; and Nicole Crifo, an attorney in the Authorities Unit in the governor’s office.

Assemblywoman Amy Handlin, R-Monmouth, suggested that the decision to put some witnesses off-limits leaves the committee questioning witnesses “who have nothing to say” or whose information is “marginal at best.”

“What is the endgame here?” Handlin asked.

“The list changes weekly,” Weinberg replied. “Everybody knows what the procedure is.”

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, the committee’s other co-chair, added that Fishman hasn’t discussed the extent or the progress of his office’s investigation.

“He hasn’t told us anything,” Wisniewski said.

Wisniewski said if witnesses were forced to testify against Fishman’s wishes, those witnesses would automatically be granted immunity from prosecution.

The exchange occurred before the director of the Authorities Unit, Regina Egea, was set to testify.

Before the hearing began, Republican members of the committee said they believed it was time to draw the investigation to a close and begin considering legislation to reform Port Authority operations.

Egea, who is slated to become Christie’s chief of staff, said she had no prior knowledge of the Sept. 9-13 lane closures in Fort Lee, N.J., and was not involved in the closings.

The closings are believed to have been orchestrated by David Wildstein, a Christie appointee at the Port Authority, and Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly. Investigators believe that the closures were orchestrated to retaliate against Democratic Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, who declined to endorse Christie for re-election.

Former Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni, another Christie appointee who was forced to resign, initially told the Assembly Transportation Committee that the lanes were closed off for a traffic study.

An internal review conducted by attorneys from the New York office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher concluded that Christie had no involvement in the closings. The closings and the resulting investigations have dogged Christie as he contemplates seeking the Republican nomination for president in 2016.

Kelly, who was fired in January, has invoked her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself and has refused to cooperate with the committee’s investigation, as has Christie’s former campaign manager, Bill Stepien.

Wildstein provided documents to the committee—including one from Kelly stating it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee”—but has refused to answer questions. A contempt charge filed against him by the committee is under review by the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office.

Egea was forwarded a copy of a Sept. 13 email from Foye to Baroni ordering the lanes to be reopened and saying the lane closures were a threat to public safety and possibly violated state and federal laws. Nevertheless, she told the committee she continued to accept Baroni’s story that the closures were part of a traffic study.

A traffic study, she said, would have been within the scope of the Port Authority’s duties and could have been used to “improve the customer experience.”

Egea said she helped Baroni, now with Hill Wallack in Princeton, N.J., prepare the opening statement that he gave to the Assembly Transportation Committee last November about the since-debunked traffic study. She said her role was to help make sure the statement was “concise and to the point.”

When asked about Foye’s email, Egea said she chalked it up to continuing disputes between Foye and Baroni.

“It seemed consistent with the tension between them,” she said. “I accepted [Baroni’s] representation.”

Baroni is a former Republican state senator from New Jersey, and Foye is an appointee of Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Wisniewki asked Egea why she didn’t follow up on her own when she saw Foye’s email. “I relied on the executive director to pursue any allegations,” she said. “We would expect the person who leveled the claim to investigate it. … I didn’t want to interfere with the executive director’s review.”

Egea acknowledged that she did not discuss Foye’s email with McKenna, to whom she directly reported.

When Wisniewski again asked why, Egea said she believed that since both Foye and Baroni are attorneys they would conduct an investigation and determine which, if any, laws were broken by closing lanes for a traffic study.

Wisniewski noted that she allowed weeks to go by without making any further inquiries about the status of Foye’s supposed investigation.

Egea said she was “curious” about what was going on, especially in light of increasing media coverage of the lane closures, but continued to wait for Foye to produce the results of his review.

Tensions between New York appointees and New Jersey appointees at the Port Authority are “exacerbated,” Egea said. “They tend to be more inwardly turned than outwardly turned toward the customer,” she said. “They define winning and losing by internal behavior, such as who has the most capital.”

Wisniewski asked Egea if anyone told her not to ask questions about the closures.

“Nobody ever told me not to ask about anything,” Egea replied.

Weinberg said there appeared to be a recurring theme among Christie administration team members who have testified that Foye’s email to Baroni was dismissed because of the tensions between the two. It was interesting, she told Egea, that Egea was “sticking to the script.”

Assemblyman Paul Moriarty, D-Gloucester, asked about an ongoing investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office into allegations that Christie pressured the Port Authority to use bond money to pay for the $1.8 billion reconstruction of the Pulaski Skyway, which links Newark to Jersey City, N.J.

The two agencies are investigating whether securities laws were broken since the Port Authority is only supposed to use money raised through bond sales for Port Authority projects. The administration has justified the project by saying the roadway is used as an access route to the Lincoln Tunnel, although it is generally considered to be a link to the Holland Tunnel. The Port Authority is only authorized to fund road improvement projects if they are related to access to the Lincoln Tunnel.

Egea said the Port Authority agreed to use the funds for the Skyway project before she arrived at the Authorities Unit. “I had no significant involvement,” she said.

During the hearing, Egea admitted that it was her past practice, before administration staffers were cautioned against it, to erase text messages, and that she likely erased text messages she sent to Christie regarding some matters, such as a legislative committee meeting regarding the lane closures in December.

Moriarty asked Egea’s attorney, Michael Martinez, if he and Egea would allow the committee to scan Egea’s cellphone for any data that could be found.

Martinez, of the New York office of Mayer Brown, said he first had to consult with Gibson Dunn lawyers since it was his impression that Egea’s phone already had been scanned during the firm’s internal review. At Weinberg’s request, he agreed to provide the committee with the phone number she used to contact Christie.

It is unclear when the committee will meet again, given that Fishman has demanded that the committee not call many of the other witnesses it has subpoenaed.

Contact the reporter at mbooth@alm.com.