John Wisniewski
John Wisniewski ()

With more than three weeks having passed since its last meeting and with at least a month to go before its next, questions are starting to arise over whether the New Jersey legislative committee investigating last September’s closures of local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge continues to have any relevance and, if it does, whether it needs to shift its focus.

Republicans who make up the minority of the Legislative Select Committee on Investigation have been saying recently that the committee, even if its creation was questionable from the start, should now be looking at enacting legislation aimed at reforming the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge and where an appointee of Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is said to have hatched the scheme.

But the committee’s co-chair, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, disagrees. In a recent interview, Wisniewski said it makes no sense to start talking about reform legislation until there is a complete understanding of what occurred within the administration and the Port Authority before the Sept. 9-13 lane closures, how people reacted afterward and why.

The committee’s work has been hamstrung somewhat by U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, whose office is leading a grand jury investigation into the closures. At his request, the committee has agreed to not call key witnesses who could provide detailed information, including Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye, an appointee of New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo.

Foye wrote an angry email Sept. 13 saying he was opening up the lanes. He questioned the motivations for the closures and suggested that state and federal laws may have been violated.

The committee has agreed to not call other witnesses.

Some of those witnesses who are off-limits include Christie’s former chief counsel, Charles McKenna; Christie’s top political strategist, Michael DuHaime; the Port Authority; Foye’s deputy, Deborah Gramiccioni; Phillip Kwon, Port Authority deputy general counsel and former state Supreme Court nominee; and Nicole Crifo, an attorney in the Authorities Unit in the governor’s office.

Because of that, and because a number of committee members are away, Wisniewski said the committee probably will not meet again until sometime in September.

“We’re now colliding with the federal investigation,” said Sen. Kevin O’Toole, R-Passaic, a committee member who is with O’Toole Fernandez Weiner Van Lieu in Verona, N.J. “We should be looking at legislative reforms now.”

That sentiment was echoed by two other Republicans on the committee, Assemblywoman Amy Handlin of Monmouth County and Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll of Morris County.

“I’ve been saying this for months,” Handlin said. “This is a legislative committee that has been given a special set of responsibilities and resources. We could be using them to enact reform legislation.”

Carroll, who runs a solo practice in Morristown, N.J., said, “We should have shifted focus from the start.”

Handlin and the other Republican on the committee, Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi of Bergen County, have tried without success at recent meetings of the committee to persuade the leadership to at least begin reviewing reform legislation.

At present there are more than 50 bills and resolutions, some of which are identical versions of Assembly and Senate measures, that would change the way the Port Authority—the massive bi-state agency created in 1921 that operates the region’s airports and seaports and most of the Hudson River crossings and a number of office buildings and industrial properties—conducts its business and how it is governed.

Most of those pending measures are bipartisan.

One bill—A-1083/S-303—is called the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Transparency and Accountability Act and would make a number of changes.

It would mandate an independent audit of the Port Authority; specify how it conducts public meetings when considering major changes, such as toll or fare increases; create an audit, finance and governance committee; require financial disclosure requirements for commissioners; and impose a fiduciary duty on commissioners, who are appointed by the governors of the two states.

Handlin and Wisniewski are among the sponsors, along with the other co-chair, Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, and another committee member, Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Bergen.

Another bill, A-1095/S-312, would subject the Port Authority to New York’s Freedom of Information Law and to New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act. Again, Wisniewski and Weinberg are two of the sponsors, along with Handlin.

Among other things, the bill would require the Port Authority to adopt good-governance practices, such as codes of conduct, and offer protections to whistleblowers by subjecting it to the Conscientious Employee Protection Act. Its primary sponsors include Handlin, Schepisi and O’Toole.

“These are the things we should be looking at,” O’Toole said. “The federal investigation will take care of itself.”

Any measures would have to be passed by both states’ legislatures and signed into law by both governors before they could become effective.

Wisniewski, however, pointed out that the committee does not have the authority to vote on legislation.

“We are not a standing reference committee,” he said. “Our singular charge was to do the investigation. At some point it may be appropriate to discuss reform measures.”

Carroll suggested that the committee could consider broadening the scope of its investigation and suggested that it may have done so by discussing how the administration is also under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office for its decision to use funds raised through Port Authority bond sales to finance the $1.8 billion repair of the Pulaski Skyway, which links Newark to Jersey City, N.J.

“We can make sure [the agency] is not being used as a kitty to pay for presents under the Christmas tree,” he said.

Handlin said the lack of ability on the part of the committee to call key witnesses is why the committee should change course and start looking at reform legislation.

“We pretty much know who did it,” she said. “The witnesses that are left to us are not important enough to the [grand jury] investigation, so why should we call them? At best it’s beating a dead horse.”

Most of the witnesses who have appeared have said they knew nothing of the traffic stops beforehand and were not involved in the planning of it.

It is generally accepted at this point that the closures were ordered by Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, and David Wildstein, a former Christie appointee at the Port Authority, who purportedly wanted to exact revenge on the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., who declined to endorse Christie for reelection last November.

The closings were labeled as part of a traffic study, a theory that has since been dismissed.

Christie fired Kelly after learning of her role and Wildstein was forced to resign.

Although Wildstein early on provided the committee with many incriminating documents—including the now-famous “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email—both he and Kelly have refused to testify. Christie’s former campaign manager, Bill Stepien, also has invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Christie pushed Stepien out of his position as head of the state Republican organization because of his role in managing the affair after it was over.

Wisniewski said it is still too early to begin looking any reform legislation.

“The [committee’s] investigation has its own pace,” said Wisniewski, who runs a firm in Sayreville, N.J. “The problems at the Port Authority happened because of the culture of secrecy and no accountability.

“Until we find out who was responsible for causing this dysfunction, you can’t fix it with reform legislation,” he said.

Wisniewski also said it is unclear what Fishman might ultimately do, and he noted that Fishman’s list of witnesses that are off limits are not set in stone.

And, he said, it is not as though there is nothing going on with the committee staff. The outside counsel, lawyers from Chicago’s Jenner & Block, have been interviewing witnesses, some of whom are members of the administration, who could be considered ancillary.

“Our counsel is quietly interviewing them individually,” he said. “We’re trying to fill in some of the blanks. The committee has not been at a standstill.”

Ben Dworkin, the director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said the committee can still perform a useful function, even if its abilities are hampered by the ongoing federal investigation.

“One, it’s illuminating the process of government, how things got done,” he said. “Two, it can come up with legislation that addresses those issues.”

The committee’s usefulness will survive being tested so long as there is a substantial segment of the public that wants answers to two questions—who ordered the closures and why, Dworkin said.

“The ‘who’ question has pretty much been answered,” he said. “The question remaining is ‘why.’”

Plus, Dworkin said, having the committee continue to hold hearings and whether any witnesses offer any useful information or not, benefits Democrats who control the committee as they try to pin at least some responsibility, if not blame, on Christie as he prepares to decide whether he will seek his party’s nomination for president in 2016.

“Any new testimony, no matter how relevant, keeps Christie and the administration on the defensive,” he said.

Contact the reporter at mbooth@alm.com.