A New Jersey judge began to hear an emergency request to block the testimony of a political ally of Governor Chris Christie today before the state Assembly about a traffic scandal that has drawn national attention.
The ally, David Wildstein, sued yesterday to quash a subpoena compelling his testimony over closures in September of lanes in Fort Lee, New Jersey, that lead to the George Washington Bridge, which connects with Manhattan. The closures snarled traffic for four days and now threaten to tarnish the image of Christie, a Republican weighing a run for president.
The hearing came as New Jersey U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman opened an investigation into the matter, the New York Times reported. Wildstein, who ordered the lane closures, was a top executive at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge. Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson is hearing arguments in Trenton from Wildstein’s lawyer, who claims Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat, issued the subpoena without proper authority and may not have signed it.
“This is an abuse of power by a legislative committee,” argued Wildstein attorney Alan Zegas. “This is a matter of whether power by a governmental branch has been lawfully exercised.”
Zegas claimed that “significant evidence” exists to believe that Wisniewski didn’t actually sign the documents, creating doubt about their validity.
Wisniewski is chairman of the Transportation, Public Works, and Independent Works Committee, which wants Wildstein to answer questions today. Zegas claimed state legislative committees have issued only four investigative subpoenas in the past two decades, and Wisniewski’s lacks authority to do so.
At the hearing, Assembly attorney Leon Sokol argued that Jacobson doesn’t have the authority to quash the subpoena.
“You’d be frustrating the ability of the legislature to conduct its legislative authority,” Sokol said. “You have to allow this process to go forward, allow the committee to call the witness.”
Wildstein should take any objections to the committee, not a judge, Sokol said.
“When a witness is called, their obligation is to appear,” he said. “If at the time they testify, if they believe their testimony would violate their constitutional rights, at that point they should address the committee.”
Sokol also said the committee can decide how to issue subpoenas, and Wisniewski was acting within that authority.
The scandal mushroomed yesterday after the release of e-mails and texts by top Christie aides who discussed closing the lanes from Sept. 9 to Sept. 12 as a way to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich. Sokolich didn’t cross party lines and support Christie in his re-election bid last fall.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, wrote to Wildstein on Aug. 13.
“Got it,” replied Wildstein, a high school friend of Christie.
As a result of the lane closures, motorists were delayed for hours in trying to cross the Hudson River into New York. The Record newspaper reported that the traffic snarls delayed paramedics from getting to an unconscious 91-year-old woman who later died of cardiac arrest.
On the fifth day, officials on the New York side reopened lanes, easing the flow over a section of Interstate 95 that the Port Authority calls the busiest bridge in the world.
“We are appropriately going nuts,” Wildstein wrote to Kelly on Sept. 13, as traffic flowed. David Samson, Christie’s appointee as Port Authority chairman, was “helping us to retaliate” for the easing of the vehicular snarls, Wildstein wrote.
Christie, 51, is the chairman of the Republican Governors Association and had been burnishing his reputation around the U.S. Christie has shrugged off Democratic claims that he’s a political bully and had remained largely silent on the bridge scandal until yesterday, when he released a statement.
“What I’ve seen today for the first time is unacceptable,” Christie said. “I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge.”
“This type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.”
The e-mails and texts discuss Sokolich and Barbara Buono, the Democratic challenger whom Christie defeated by a 60 percent to 38 percent margin.
At 8:04 a.m. on Sept. 10, Sokolich sent a text to Bill Baroni, Christie’s top executive appointee at the authority, saying Fort Lee had “four very busy traffic lanes merging into only one toll booth.”
His text became part of a string discussing the closings. The record doesn’t include the identities of participants other than Sokolich, who at times is referred to as “the Serbian,” and his town, Fort Lee, as “Serbia.”
“The bigger problem is getting kids to school,” Sokolich wrote. “Help, please. It’s maddening.”
The text string includes a response: “They are the children of Buono voters.”
Jacobson, the judge, was appointed to the bench in 2001 by then-Governor Christie Todd Whitman, a Republican, according to the New Jersey courts website.
Rebekah Carmichael, a spokesman for New Jersey U.S. Attorney Fishman, declined to comment on whether a probe had been opened.