A New Jersey legislative committee probing the manufactured traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge today released e-mails and texts by allies to Governor Chris Christie, including one about a dead U.S. senator.
The e-mails show former campaign manager William Stepien, former deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly and others regularly communicated about the lane closures, which snarled traffic in Fort Lee, New Jersey, from Sept. 9 to Sept. 12, according to a court filing by an attorney for the committee.
The committee wants to know who ordered the tie-ups and why, which U.S. prosecutors are exploring in a criminal investigation. The approval ratings of Christie, a Republican weighing a run for the White House in 2016, dropped 30 percent since his re-election last November. Kelly and Stepien refused to turn over documents subpoenaed by the committee, claiming it violates their right against self-incrimination.
At a hearing last week in state court in Trenton, the judge ordered committee 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 today 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 Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat who served in the Senate from 1982 to 2000 and from 2003 until he died last June 3. Baroni responded by referring to state Senator Loretta Weinberg and Assembly 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 had said the project, estimated at $8.7 billion, would cost New Jersey taxpayers billions of dollars in overruns.
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 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.”
Michael Himmel, an attorney for Baroni, didn’t immediately respond to a phone call a call seeking comment on the released documents. Baroni resigned in December.
In his filing today, 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 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).
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