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Thursday, October 27, 2016

By Shawn Boburg, The Record (Hackensack, NJ)

HACKENSACK, NJ—Two key figures in the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal do not have to comply with legislative subpoenas demanding that they turn over documents, a judge ruled Wednesday, delivering a setback to lawmakers whose probe linked the closures to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s office earlier this year.

Bridget Anne Kelly, the governor’s former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Stepien, a former campaign manager, argued that turning over documents would violate their Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination because the information, once made public, could be used by federal authorities in a parallel criminal investigation.

Superior Court Judge Mary C. Jacobson agreed in a 98-page decision that represented the first successful challenge to state lawmakers’ primary investigative tool — their subpoena power — and ignited a debate about the future direction of the legislative investigation, even as many questions about the scandal remain unanswered.

Jacobson, who described the subpoenas as too broad, likening them to a “fishing expedition,” seemed to suggest that the panel could re-issue more narrow subpoenas to Kelly and Stepien that might hold up against a legal challenge. But the prospect of new subpoenas — and the possibility of another prolonged court battle over whether they are valid — could also present other political challenges for the committee, as its leaders look to regain momentum and its critics urge it to move on.

A co-chairman of the legislative committee, John Wisniewski, a Democrat, said in a statement that the panel would consider its options.

“The committee felt it was very much in the public interest to seek to compel the production of these documents, but as we’ve said before, there’s more than one method to gather information in an investigation, and we will consider alternatives. We will continue exploring every avenue to find out what happened with this threat to public safety and abuse of government power,” he said in a statement.

The decision follows a report commissioned by Christie’s office and released last month that concluded there was no evidence that Christie authorized or helped plan the lane closures. The report, widely criticized as being one-sided, pinned responsibility for the closures on Kelly and former Port Authority executive David Wildstein but could not determine what is characterized as their apparent “ulterior motive” for closing the lanes. Kelly, Stepien, and Wildstein did not cooperate with the report by attorney Randy Mastro, leaving questions about the origin of the lane closures unresolved.

Wednesday’s court ruling means the legislative committee is less likely to get those answers from Kelly and Stepien.

Stepien’s attorney said Wednesday’s ruling amounted to a “vindication” of his client.

“In its zeal to achieve a blatantly political goal having nothing to do with Mr. Stepien, the Committee disregarded the fundamental constitutional rights of this innocent man,” attorney Kevin Marino wrote in a statement. “In the process, it wasted the taxpayers’ money — and the nation’s time — on a frivolous lawsuit to enforce a clearly invalid subpoena. That lawsuit has now been properly and roundly rejected.”