U.S. agents probing deliberate traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge called New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s former campaign chief, William Stepien, and interviewed his landlord, according to a lawyer.
Two investigators asked Stepien’s landlord about “his conduct and character -- was he married, was he a rowdy tenant, did he pay his rent on time,” according to legal papers released yesterday by Stepien’s attorney, Kevin Marino.
The brief gives a detailed glimpse of how Stepien says agents are probing his possible role in the closing of bridge access lanes from Sept. 9 to Sept. 12. Lawmakers and U.S. prosecutors are trying to determine which of Christie’s allies ordered the closings, which snarled traffic in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Marino is seeking to block a state legislative committee subpoena demanding documents from Stepien as New Jersey’s U.S. attorney, Paul Fishman, conducts a parallel criminal investigation. Marino said forcing Stepien to “use his own mental processes” to locate documents would violate his constitutional right against self-incrimination.
“Mr. Stepien is undeniably a subject, if not a target, of both inquiries,” according to papers Marino is filing in state court in Trenton. “In recent weeks, federal criminal investigators have made their interest in him plain, traveling to his home and importuning his landlord and presumably others to provide information about his conduct and character.”
Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, has said he believes the traffic jams were meant to punish him for not backing the re-election last fall of Christie, a Republican.
The scandal has hurt the governor’s reputation as he eyes a run for the White House in 2016. At a Jan. 9 press conference, he said he fired deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly and cut ties to Stepien. Kelly’s response to the committee’s subpoena is due March 6.
Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, Christie’s two top appointees at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge, have resigned.
According to the motion, Stepien is an innocent man whose career was on an upward trajectory after Christie won re-election by 22 percentage points. He was a consultant to the Republican Governors’ Association, where Christie is chairman. On Jan. 7, Christie appointed him as chairman of the state Republican Party.
Christie said at the time that “Bill Stepien is the best Republican operative in the country, and New Jersey Republicans will be fortunate to have him leading our party,” according to the motion.
In announcing on Jan. 9 that he had cut Stepien loose, Christie cited two e-mails after the lane closings that caused him to lose confidence in Stepien’s judgment.
On Sept. 18, Wildstein sent an article on the jams to Stepien. “The mayor is an idiot,” Stepien wrote. “It will be a tough November for this little Serbian,” Wildstein wrote. Sokolich is of Croatian descent.
Fishman’s prosecutors interviewed Sokolich for more than three hours on Feb. 21, according to the mayor’s attorney. Christie’s press secretary, Michael Drewniak, was interviewed by prosecutors on Feb. 27, said his attorney.
An agent from the Federal Bureau of Investigation called on Jan. 17 to speak to Stepien, who said he was represented by Marino. Shortly after that, two prosecutors in Fishman’s office, Rachael Honig and Lee Cortes, called Marino and asked to speak with Stepien, according to the brief. Marino declined.
In mid-February, the FBI agent and a Justice Department criminal investigator questioned Stepien’s landlord in Mercer County, according to the papers.
The co-chairman of the legislative committee investigating the lane closings, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, was traveling in Israel as part of a state delegation and couldn’t be reached yesterday for comment on the papers. Rebekah Carmichael, a spokeswoman for Fishman, declined to comment on them.
The state courts were closed yesterday because of a snowstorm, and Marino can file his brief today, said Winnie Comfort, a spokeswoman for the courts.
The cases are New Jersey Legislative Select Committee on Investigations v. Kelly, L-350-14, and New Jersey Legislative Select Committee on Investigations v. Stepien, MER-L-354-14, Superior Court of New Jersey, Mercer County (Trenton).