New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s allies regularly communicated about manufactured traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge, according to e-mails and texts that included a reference to the fun of “beating up on” late Democratic U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg.
The New Jersey legislative committee probing the lane closures that snarled traffic in Fort Lee, New Jersey, from Sept. 9 to Sept. 12, yesterday released e-mails and texts between the Republican governor’s former campaign manager William Stepien and Bridget Anne Kelly, his former deputy chief of staff, among others.
The committee wants to know who ordered the tie-ups and why, which is also the focus of a U.S. criminal probe. The approval ratings of Christie, who is weighing a run for the White House in 2016, dropped 30 percent since his re-election in November. Kelly and Stepien refused to turn over documents subpoenaed by the committee, claiming it would violate their right against self-incrimination.
At a hearing last week in state court in Trenton, the judge ordered the committee’s lawyer, Reid Schar, to provide written arguments on whether the committee can provide protection, or immunity, from criminal prosecution to Kelly and Stepien, and whether it can force compliance through its contempt powers. After the hearing, Stepien’s lawyer demanded that Schar release any e-mails or texts from his client not previously made public.
Schar yesterday answered the judge’s questions and released new communications, including a Nov. 26 exchange between Stepien and William Baroni, once Christie’s highest appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the bridge’s operator. Baroni had testified the day before to a state Assembly committee that the tie-ups were part of a traffic study.
In a message to Baroni, Stepien referred to Lautenberg, who served in the Senate from 1982 to 2000 and from 2003 until his death on June 3. Baroni responded by referring to state Senator Loretta Weinberg and Assemblyman John Wisniewski, both Democrats who are now co-chairmen of the investigative committee.
“Hey, great job yesterday,” Stepien texted. “I know it’s not a fun topic, and not nearly as fun as beating up on Frank Lautenberg, but you did great, and I wanted to thank you.”
Baroni responded: “Thanks William. Loretta and wis will keep their nonsense but at least we have explained the counter narrative.”
Lautenberg had criticized Christie’s cancellation of construction of the Hudson River commuter tunnel, known as Access to the Region’s Core, calling it “one of the biggest public-policy blunders in New Jersey history.” Christie said the project, estimated at $8.7 billion, would cost New Jersey taxpayers billions of dollars in overruns.
The governor and Stepien have a long alliance forged during Christie’s 2009 run against Democrat Jon Corzine.
Stepien managed that campaign and joined the administration when Christie took office in January 2010. He served as deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs until leaving to run the governor’s 2013 campaign.
After his 22 percentage point victory in November, Christie tapped Stepien to take charge of the Republican State Committee and serve as a political adviser to the Republican Governors Association. The governor, chairman of the national political group, later said he had severed ties with Stepien and asked him to remove his name from consideration after e-mails surfaced in January in which he called the mayor of Fort Lee an “idiot.”
Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson is weighing whether to enforce the subpoenas for Stepien and Kelly, which their lawyers claim violate their right to avoid self-incrimination under the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment. Schar argues the subpoenas are not a fishing expedition and that he is requesting the documents with “reasonable particularity.”
Kevin Marino, Stepien’s lawyer, said yesterday in an e-mail: “The documents released today -- as distinct from the familiar rhetoric that attended their release -- thoroughly discredit the committee’s desperate attempt to paint Mr. Stepien as a central figure in the lane closure controversy. Stated simply, those documents do not contain a shard of support for the committee’s position, which we are confident will be roundly rejected.”
Marino argued today in a letter to Schar that the committee had no legal right to release the latest round of e-mails to the public as part of the filing. He said he wants everyone responsible for disclosing documents to be “adjudged a disorderly person.”
In his letter, Marino said the new documents “make clear that Mr. Stepien is an innocent man who had nothing whatsoever to do with the lane closures or any attempt to conceal the reasons for those closures.” The “selective disclosure” of documents sought to avoid due process and privacy protections, he said.
Michael Himmel, an attorney for Baroni, didn’t immediately respond to a phone calls seeking comment on the released documents. Baroni resigned in December.
In his filing yesterday, Schar argued “there is no specific statutory grant of authority” for the committee to exercise contempt powers over those who won’t comply with subpoenas.
He also argued that it’s unsettled under state law whether the committee can grant immunity. The more immediate question, Schar argued, is whether Kelly and Stepien “have a valid Fifth Amendment claim,” making considerations of immunity premature.
The e-mails released yesterday include exchanges on Jan. 8, the day before Christie said he cut ties to Stepien and fired Kelly.
Stepien has been hired by FLS Connect, a St. Paul, Minnesota-based political consulting firm. It has worked for the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senate Committee and in the last five presidential campaigns, the company says on its website.
“FLS Connect is excited to have Bill Stepien join our team,” Sheila Berkley, the company’s president, said today in a statement. “His extensive national experience and knowledge will be an asset to our clients and our company.”
A Jan. 8 e-mail by Colin Reed, a Christie spokesman, said Kelly was one of three deputy chiefs of staff and a close member of Christie’s team. Her Twitter timeline, Reed said, included pictures of her celebrating her 40th birthday with Christie and others on his team.
“Maybe too late, but she may want to shut down everything on social media,” Reed wrote to Maria Comella, deputy chief of staff for communications and planning.
The cases are New Jersey Legislative Select Committee on Investigations v. Kelly, MER-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).