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Monday, December 09, 2019

Lawmakers Issue 20 Subpoenas In New Jersey Bridge Scandal

By Andrew Seidman and Maddie Hanna

The Philadelphia Inquirer


TRENTON, N.J. — A Democratic lawmaker leading the investigation of the George Washington Bridge scandal that has engulfed the Christie administration issued 20 more subpoenas to individuals and organizations Thursday.

Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski, who leads one of two special legislative inquiry panels created Thursday, said he would not identify the recipients of the subpoenas — 17 individuals and three organizations — until they had been served.

Late Thursday, a Democratic source confirmed that former top Christie aides Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Stepien had been subpoenaed, along with the Christie campaign organization. Also subpoenaed was Matt Mowers, Christie’s former regional political director, who is now the executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party.

“Matt is an extremely talented worker and a valued member of our team,” Jennifer Horn, the New Hampshire GOP chairwoman, said in a statement. “He has not been accused of any wrongdoing and there is zero indication that he is in any way connected to the decision to close the bridge lanes.”

Wisniewski’s subpoenas came on a day when both houses in the Legislature voted unanimously to expand their investigation, even as they disagreed on how best to proceed.

Earlier Thursday, Christie’s office announced that it had retained a former assistant U.S. attorney and top aide to former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as outside legal counsel. Giuliani has been a Christie supporter.

Legislators made clear that they wanted to continue the inquiry into how and why some of Christie’s deputies orchestrated a plot in September to shut down access lanes leading from Fort Lee to the world’s busiest bridge. But Assembly Democrats rebuffed an attempt by the Senate to establish a joint committee.

So the Senate launched its own separate investigation, in a move that suggested to some that Democrats in both houses are seeking to claim credit for tackling corruption.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage, a Democrat, said on MSNBC of the two committees. “It’s a waste of taxpayer money and it’s all about who can get on television first.”

Just hours after establishing those committees, Republicans accused Wisniewski of running a partisan “committee of one.”

Last week, Assembly Democrats made public thousands of pages of documents they obtained via previous subpoenas showing that at least one member of Christie’s inner circle had corresponded with one of the governor’s appointees at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey about creating gridlock in Fort Lee, apparently to punish the borough’s Democratic mayor for not endorsing the Republican governor.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, wrote in an Aug. 13 e-mail to David Wildstein, the appointee.

“Got it,” he replied.

Christie fired Kelly and severed ties with Stepien, another close political adviser, last week. Wildstein and another Christie appointee at the Port Authority, former Republican State Sen. Bill Baroni, resigned last month.

Baroni had said the lane closures were part of a traffic study overseen by Wildstein. On Thursday, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D.-W.Va., who has also inquired about the closures, said information provided by the Port Authority showed “zero evidence” of a “legitimate” traffic study.

The documents released last week showed that a number of Christie’s staff members, including newly appointed chief of staff Regina Egea and Michael Drewniak, the governor’s press secretary, were notified of the traffic jams as early as September.

On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat, the chairwoman of the new Senate committee and an early critic of the lane closures, said she intends to subpoena Egea as well as David Samson, chairman of the board of commissioners at the Port Authority.

Christie appeared in Manahawkin on Thursday to tout Sandy recovery but did not address the controversy directly.

Christie said he had “accepted the task of leading this state for eight years, not four years, and no one, I can assure you, ever told me or anybody on my team that it was going to be easy.”

The governor’s office said its outside legal team is being led by Randy Mastro, former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, where he specialized in organized-crime cases. Mastro is a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher L.L.P.

“Gov. Christie made clear last week that he will conduct an internal review to uncover the facts surrounding the lane closures in Fort Lee,” the governor’s office said in a statement. “His administration is fully cooperating with the U.S. attorney inquiry and other appropriate inquiries and requests for information.”

They did not say how much the firm would charge.

“Just as the outside counsel hired by Assembly Democrats will be compensated by the public, so too will the team hired by the administration,” said Christie spokesman Colin Reed.

The Assembly retained Reid Schar, a former federal prosecutor who tried former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, as outside counsel to assist in its investigation. The Assembly will pay partners at Schar’s firm $350 an hour, plus other charges, out of its budget.

On the Assembly floor Thursday, Wisniewski said his investigation’s goal was to restore the public’s trust and work to prevent similar abuses of power from recurring.

“We have no predetermined outcome. We have no predetermined agenda,” he said. “We’ve been following a trail that followed the operations and finances of the Port Authority. … Unexpectedly we wound up in the governor’s office.”

The subpoenas issued Thursday ask for documents related to the traffic jams, Wisniewski said. He said his committee would review documents before compelling testimony.

Wisniewski said he did not anticipate receiving any documents until February.

Republicans commended Wisniewski for uncovering possible wrongdoing but expressed concern that they had not been informed of new developments in a timely manner or consulted on key decisions, such as hiring outside counsel to assist with the Assembly’s investigation.

“Here we are, an hour into this process, and the bipartisanship is falling apart,” GOP Assemblyman Greg McGuckin said at a news conference after the special committee’s first meeting.

Over objections from Republicans, the committee authorized a resolution that gives Wisniewski, as chair, the authority to issue subpoenas, and control and determine access to documents the committee receives.

In the Senate, several Republicans voiced support for the investigation but questioned what shape it would take. As in the Assembly, the resolution passed by the Senate gave the committee authority to investigate “abuse of government power” including, “but not limited to,” the bridge incident.

Cautioning against a rush to judgment was GOP Sen. Kevin O’Toole, a Christie ally who was among the three Republicans appointed to the committee.

Division was also evident among Democrats on Thursday. In explaining why the lower house had not formed a joint committee with the Senate, Assembly Majority Leader Louis D. Greenwald, a Democrat, said on the floor: “We are way ahead of where the Senate is. You want to slow this down? You think the people of Fort Lee want to slow this down so (the Senate) can catch up?”

Photo:  Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr


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