The New Jersey legislative committee investigating last fall’s suspect closures of George Washington Bridge access lanes has rejected claims of Fifth Amendment privilege raised by two subpoenaed individuals.
The Joint Legislative Select Committee on Investigation voted Monday, along party lines, to enforce document subpoenas issued to Gov. Chris Christie’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, and former deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly.
The panel authorized its special counsel, Reid Schar of Jenner & Block in Chicago, to take “all necessary steps” to obtain those documents—including emails and texts—if the two continue to refuse to comply. Kelly and Stepien have been given until Feb. 17.
“We want to give them one last shot” to answer the subpoenas, said Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, the committee’s co-chairman. He declined to specify what legal steps might be taken if they still refuse.
Wisniewski and co-chairwoman Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, also announced another round of subpoenas about to be served.
The committee met behind closed doors for nearly two hours before they passed the measures in a public vote.
The four Republicans on the committee abstained, saying they did not have enough time to study the constitutionality of the measures.
Wisniewski and Weinberg said Schar advised the committee that an argument could be made that the Fifth Amendment does not apply to a demand for documents.
A number of those served with subpoenas have expressed concern, through their attorneys, that any cooperation with the committee or compliance with its document demands could implicate them in an ongoing criminal investigation by U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman.
Already served are Christie’s chief of staff and attorney general nominee Kevin O’Dowd; chief counsel Charles McKenna; lead spokesman Michael Drewniak; spokesman Colin Reed; communications director Maria Comella; O’Dowd’s expected successor, Regina Egea; and two other staffers, Christina Genovese and Evan Ridley.
Also under subpoena are Port Authority of New York and New Jersey officials: chairman David Samson of Wolff & Samson in West Orange; former director of interstate capital projects David Wildstein, who implemented the closures; and former deputy executive director Bill Baroni.
Wildstein and Baroni resigned in December. Christie fired Kelly after learning that she orchestrated the Sept. 9 through Sept. 13 lane closings with Wildstein, possibly because the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee declined to endorse Christie for reelection.
Wildstein complied with requests for documents—which implicated Kelly—but invoked his Fifth Amendment rights when questioned by lawmakers. He was found to be in contempt and that matter is being reviewed by the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office.
There were 18 more document subpoenas served on Tuesday. Among the recipients was Port Authority deputy general counsel Phillip Kwon, a failed Christie nominee to the state Supreme Court, who counseled Baroni before he told lawmakers last November that the lane closures were part of a traffic study.
Also subpoenaed at the Port Authority were Commissioner William Schuber; Steve Coleman, director of communications; John Ma, chief of staff to Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye; Matthew Bell, special assistant to Baroni; Gretchin DiMarco, assistant to Baroni; Arielle Schwartz, special assistant to Wildstein; and Mark Muriello, assistant director for tunnels, bridges and terminals.
Subpoenaed at the governor’s office were Regina Egea, director of the Authorities Unit; Nicole Crifo, senior counsel to the Authorities Unit; Jeanne Ashmore, director of constituent services; Rosemary Iannacone, director of operations; and Barbara Panebianco, former executive assistant to Kelly.
The recipients have until Feb. 24 to comply with the subpoenas.
Also subpoenaed was the custodian of records of the State Police Aviation Unit, relative to a New York Post account that Christie flew over the closed lanes of the bridge in a State Police helicopter after a 9/11 memorial service that Wildstein also attended.
Christie has consistently denied knowing anything about the lane closures until they were over.
But last month Wildstein’s lawyer, Alan Zegas, sent a letter to the committee saying that “evidence exists” that Christie did, indeed, know of the closures.
“This has become a more complicated effort,” Wisniewski said of the committee’s investigation, which also is looking into other “abuses of power.”