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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

By Melissa Hayes, The Record (Hackensack, NJ)

TRENTON, NJ — New Jersey lawmakers leading the inquiry into the George Washington Bridge scandal announced Wednesday that they’ve expanded their investigation to seek documents from the top strategist on Gov. Chris Christie’s campaign.

The move comes a day after Democrats questioned a former staffer in Christie’s office about the political nature of her team — which dealt with mayors and local officials courted by the campaign for endorsements — during an election year.

By demanding that Michael DuHaime provide documents, emails, text messages and his calendars, the committee is furthering its “bipartisan investigation into the lane closings and apparent abuse of power,” its co-leaders, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg and Assemblyman John Wisniewski, said in a statement.

The subpoena seeks information about conversations and meetings DuHaime had months after the lane closures with Christie; Bill Stepien, the governor’s campaign manager; and David Wildstein, the Port Authority appointee at the heart of the controversy.

Republicans said this latest request coupled with repeated questions at Tuesday’s hearing about endorsement efforts show the Democrats who control the committee are more concerned with investigating the governor’s re-election bid than reforming the Port Authority.

DuHaime’s attorney, Marc Mukasey, said his client has been cooperating with the committee and questioned whether Wisniewski was using the investigation to further his own political career.

“He was not involved in the decisions around the lane closures as has been well established at this point,” Mukasey said in the statement Wednesday. “That simple fact, plus the fact that Mike offered to cooperate without need of a subpoena, gives us great concern that this is really about politics and the chairman’s political future. That would be unfortunate to say the least.”

But Wisniewski disputed Mukasey’s allegation as “not true” and also defended the questioning of Christina Renna, who worked as director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs until she resigned in January. Renna worked for Bridget Anne Kelly, the deputy chief of staff Christie fired after learning she sent the email, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” to Wildstein.

Stepien was a deputy chief of staff to Christie before leaving to run the campaign; he supervised Kelly and Renna.

The lane closures were allegedly an act of retribution against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, for declining to endorse Christie.

Wisniewski said the subpoena seeks to answer questions raised in the summary of an interview DuHaime consented to with attorneys from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, the law firm Christie hired to lead an internal investigation into the lane closures.

Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, one of four Republicans on the committee, raised concerns with both the subpoena and Tuesday’s hearing.

“This seems to be shifting from the stated purpose of implementing reforms at the Port Authority to more of an indictment of Governor Christie’s campaign,” said Schepisi (R-River Vale). “And if we’re truly focused on what the stated objective of the committee was, which was to understand what occurred at the Port Authority, to put forth appropriate reforms legislatively, we seem to have really gone off on a tangent of an indictment of (the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs) and the inner workings of Governor Christie’s campaign.”

Schepisi said Renna’s nearly five hours of testimony did not offer much new information and Democrats were asking her to speculate on things she did not have answers to.

But Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) said Renna provided critical details, including information about Kelly’s request that she delete an email related to the lane closures in December, months after it had been sent. Renna also testified that she did not think Kelly was the “architect” of the lane closures, a term Christie had used to describe her after he fired her for her involvement.

Kelly’s lawyer, Michael Critchley, disputed Tuesday that his client asked Renna to delete the email.

The issue is important because such a request could expose Kelly to criminal charges, two former federal prosecutors said.

“She’s trying to get rid of evidence that would suggest an ulterior motive to what had occurred,” said Robert Del Tufo, a Democrat who served both as U.S. attorney and attorney general in New Jersey. Del Tufo said it could lead to a charge of obstructing justice.

Matthew Axelrod, a lawyer in private practice who until this year was a top official in the Department of Justice and who advised U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on white-collar criminal issues, agreed and said the timing of the deletion would determine whether the potential charge would come in federal court or state court. At the time Renna said the request was made, the only requests for documents to the governor’s office had come from the Assembly committee investigating the lane closures; federal subpoenas from the U.S. Attorney’s Office arrived later.

Photo:  Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr