New Jersey lawmakers probing intentional traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge asked a state court judge to force two former aides to Governor Chris Christie to turn over documents they refuse to produce.
The lawmakers sued yesterday seeking to enforce subpoenas on William Stepien, Christie’s former campaign manager, and Bridget Anne Kelly, his ex-deputy chief of staff. Both refused to turn over e-mails, text messages and other documents on the grounds that it violated their constitutional right against self-incrimination and unreasonable searches.
A joint Senate and Assembly panel is probing why Christie allies ordered a shutdown of access lanes to the bridge from Sept. 9 to 12, causing gridlock in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, said he believes the tie-ups were meant to punish him because he didn’t endorse the re-election bid of Christie, a Republican weighing a White House run.
Separately, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey formed an oversight committee to improve governance at the transportation agency as its chairman, David Samson, a Christie appointee, and its vice chairman also apologized to drivers for the inconvenience caused by the closings and for putting public safety at risk.
The lawsuits filed in state court in Trenton seek a court declaration that Stepien and Kelly “failed, without justification, to produce documents in accordance with the subpoena.” They also asked the court to compel the former aides to hand over the requested documents.
“Today’s court filings are an unfortunate but necessary step to further the committee’s work,” Assemblyman John Wisniewski and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, who are chairmen of the investigative committee, said yesterday. “The committee remains confident in its legal position. We will now let the judicial process play out.”
Christie has denied that he played any role in the lane closures. He said Jan. 9 that he had fired Kelly and cut ties to Stepien. Their attorneys have said they won’t produce documents because they could be used against them in a parallel criminal investigation by U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman.
“The position we asserted previously is correct,” said Michael Critchley, an attorney for Kelly. “From a brief review of the committee’s memorandum of law, I see nothing that causes me to change my position. I look forward to litigating the issues in court.”
Kevin Marino, Stepien’s attorney, said: “We will review the committee’s filing and respond appropriately.”
Fort Lee’s borough clerk yesterday released more than 2,000 pages of records relating to the bridge shutdown and its effects over the four days of gridlock. The records include summaries of ambulance calls and police responses to traffic accidents.
The files contain dozens of Open Public Records Act requests from the media, as well as one from Wisniewski’s investigative committee. The committee sought logs of phone calls between officials in Fort Lee and those at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge. One of those was former Deputy Executive Director William Baroni, who resigned in December.
The records also include hundreds of pages related to a $1 billion redevelopment project near the bridge. Wisniewski has said the committee will explore whether the development project played a role in the traffic jams.
The Port Authority’s vice chairman, Scott Rechler, an appointee of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, said the oversight committee will review the effectiveness of the agency’s whistle-blower and recusal policies. The committee wouldn’t ignore the state and federal investigations into the traffic jams engineered by David Wildstein, an authority official charged with carrying out Christie’s agenda, Rechler said.
Kelly had sent an Aug. 13 e-mail to Wildstein that said: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Wildstein replied: “Got it.”
Wildstein resigned from his post.
Samson, who isn’t a member of the oversight committee, was linked to the closings by e-mails obtained last month by news outlets. In one message, Wildstein told Kelly that Samson was “helping us to retaliate” for New York traffic officials’ easing of the jam on what would have been the fifth day.
Christie said Jan. 9 that he spoke to Samson for two hours and believed that he knew nothing about the issue. Samson hired attorney Michael Chertoff, the former homeland security secretary and U.S. attorney in New Jersey, to represent him in the investigation.
Samson, who didn’t take questions, said yesterday he “wholeheartedly” endorsed the oversight panel.
Samson said in a brief statement that he can’t allow the Port Authority to be “mischaracterized” by the actions of a few. While Samson said he wanted to comment more specifically, he deferred to the state and federal probes that are examining the closings.
“I trust that when the facts unfold and they will unfold, the public will have a complete picture,” Samson said.
Samson was state attorney general under Democrat James McGreevey. He was nominated to the board by Christie in 2010 and elected chairman in February 2011. In 2009, he was general counsel to Christie’s election campaign, and was chairman of his transition committee.
Doomed to Fail
Margaret Donovan, co-founder of the Twin Towers Alliance, which advocates rebuilding World Trade Center buildings destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001, said at the meeting that the special oversight committee was doomed to fail.
Donovan, a long-time critic of the agency, which owns the World Trade Center site, called on the 12 commissioners and top executives at the agency to resign and be replaced by independent career professionals. The Port Authority should also be subject to open records and meetings laws of New York and New Jersey, she said.
``Does anybody believe that political appointees will be able to reform that which political appointees have deformed?" said Donovan.
The subpoena lawsuits are New Jersey Legislative Select Committee on Investigations v. Kelly and New Jersey Legislative Select Committee on Investigations v. Stepien, Superior Court of New Jersey, Mercer County (Trenton).