By Michael Linhorst and Melissa Hayes, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)
HACKENSACK, N.J.—Democrats leading the panel investigating the George Washington Bridge lane closures met with their lawyer Thursday to decide their next move, one day after a judge ruled that they could not compel two central players in the controversy to hand over documents.
Also weighing on their decision is concern over whether Democratic leaders will continue backing them as their investigation stretches into its fourth month. Stephen Sweeney, the Democratic Senate president, suggested this week — before the judge’s decision — that the committee should stop its investigation if the court ruled against it. Sweeney later tempered his statement, saying he supports the panel’s work.
Through a spokesman, Sweeney declined to comment Thursday about what direction he thinks the panel should take. The speaker of the Assembly, Democrat Vincent Prieto, did not respond to a request for comment.
Republicans on the committee were not involved in talks with the panel’s lawyer, Reid Schar, a former federal prosecutor from Illinois. And they also don’t have a preferred way forward.
But lawmakers are still holding out hope for some progress in their investigation: Friday is the deadline they imposed for documents from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, the law firm that conducted an internal probe for the governor’s office. Legislators want whatever records the law firm has from the 70 interviews it completed as part of the investigation the Christie administration hired it to make into the lane closures.
Randy Mastro, the Gibson Dunn attorney who led the internal investigation, said in a statement this week that his firm is talking with the committee’s lawyer. On Thursday, however, a spokesman for Gov. Chris Christie declined to comment about what the law firm would do.
Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson’s decision, which was released Wednesday, allows Bridget Anne Kelly, the governor’s former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Stepien, Christie’s former campaign manager, to refuse to comply with the committee’s demands for documents.
After losing in court, there’s no obvious next step for the committee to take.
But the panel does have several options, according to state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat,, and Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat, co-leaders of the committee.
The lawmakers could appeal the ruling. They could issue new subpoenas to Kelly and Stepien and try to craft those demands in a narrower way that might comply with Jacobson’s ruling. They could offer Kelly and Stepien immunity from prosecution — a power that, Wisniewski says, the committee maintains. They also could shift the focus of their investigation to look more broadly at the politicized inner workings of the governor’s office and the Port Authority.
“There are a variety of alternatives here which we have to consider very carefully in terms of the parallel U.S. attorney’s investigation, in terms of what’s the best legal avenue for us to get the answers that we need,” Weinberg said Thursday.
They also could pause and wait for Paul Fishman, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, to complete his investigation into the lane closures. A federal grand jury has issued several subpoenas, and it has heard testimony from at least one person: Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak.
But the wait-and-see approach appears to be out of the question for the Democrats.
“The decision was important, yes,” Wisniewski said of Jacobson’s ruling. “Not what we wanted, of course, but the work of the committee is continuing.”
While they’re deciding on which direction to take, they’re planning to ask additional witnesses to speak before the committee.
“We have been discussing and are in the final stages of extending invitations for individuals to come before the committee and testify in this matter,” said Wisniewski, who did not identify the people he plans to invite.
Complicating the committee leaders’ decision is the possibility of reduced support from Sweeney. The Senate president told The Star-Ledger’s editorial board Monday that if the judge ruled against the committee, it should stop its investigation and let the federal inquiry go forward. He later backed away from that statement, saying he supported the committee’s work.
Like the Democrats, Republicans on the committee haven’t decided on the next step they’d like to take.
“I’m still plowing through the opinion and want to hear from the other 11 members, and I’m waiting to hear from our counsel,” said GOP state Sen. Kevin O’Toole. Although the Republicans hadn’t spoken to Schar, the panel’s attorney, on Thursday, Weinberg and Wisniewski had at least one conversation with him about the court ruling.
If Gibson Dunn doesn’t turn over the documents the committee is seeking by Friday, the committee will subpoena them, Wisniewski said.
The committee is seeking whatever records Gibson Dunn has from interviews, including those with Christie, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and all members of the governor’s Cabinet. Wisniewski said he has “been advised” that the firm did not record or transcribe its interviews from the internal probe. Instead, it likely has memos written by the firm’s lawyers describing the interviews.
Committee member Amy Handlin, a Republican assemblywoman, said that whatever happens next, the panel needs to turn its focus toward implementing legislation that would change the Port Authority.
“I think we should shift priorities for the time being,” she said. “Right now we should push reforms to the top of the list.”
Handlin and other Republicans introduced a set of bills in February that they say would improve the Port Authority’s transparency and operations. But the proposals haven’t advanced in the months since.
Photo: Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr