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Feds Seek Travel Records Of Port Authority’s Ex-Chairman

By Shawn Boburg, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (TNS)

HACKENSACK, N.J. — Federal prosecutors have demanded that the Port Authority turn over records related to the personal travel of the agency’s former chairman, David Samson, as well as his relationship with Newark Liberty International Airport’s largest carrier, United Airlines, according to multiple sources, a development that opens yet another line of inquiry in what has become a sprawling criminal investigation.

The subpoena issued last month appears to be part of a probe into a flight route initiated by United while Samson was chairman of the transportation agency that operates the region’s airports. The route provided non-stop service between Newark and Columbia Metropolitan Airport in South Carolina — about 50 miles from a home where Samson often spent weekends with his wife. United halted the non-stop route on April 1 of last year, just three days after Samson resigned under a cloud.

Samson referred to the twice-a-week route — with a flight leaving Newark on Thursday evenings and another returning on Monday mornings — as “the chairman’s flight,” one source said. Federal aviation records show that during the 19 months United offered the non-stop service, the 50-seat planes that flew the route were, on average, only about half full.

United Airlines was in regular negotiations with the Port Authority and the Christie administration during Samson’s tenure over issues that included expansion of the airline’s service to Atlantic City and the extension of the PATH train to Newark Liberty.

Besides Samson’s personal travel records, the subpoena also demands information about votes Samson took while chairman and any communications he had with United and its former lobbyist, Jamie Fox, a close friend of Samson’s who has since become Gov. Chris Christie’s transportation commissioner.

United declined to comment beyond issuing a statement that it, too, had received a subpoena.

“United has received subpoenas for information and is cooperating,” the airline stated, adding that “United has no further comment.”

A spokeswoman for Samson didn’t provide comment. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey declined to comment, as did Christie’s office.

The revelations come the same week that Christie, who is considering a presidential run, is facing his own controversy over extravagant travel and who pays for it. On Monday, The New York Times reported that casino magnate Sheldon Adelson provided his private jet for the Christie family to go to Israel at a time when Adelson was opposing pending state legislation to legalize online gambling. Christie also accepted a $30,000 hotel stay on a trip to Jordan paid for by King Abdullah, who the Christie administration has said is a friend of the governor.

On Sunday, The Record reported that the non-profit group paying for three of Christie international trips in the past six months is backed with donations from companies that do business with the state and regularly lobby lawmakers, including Christie.

The federal investigation led by U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman began with the George Washington Bridge lane closings nearly 13 months ago. The office has remained circumspect about the special grand jury’s focus. But the subpoenas issued in the past month — including to Christie’s re-election campaign and now to the Port Authority for records related to United — suggest that it has widened far beyond the shut-down lanes that clogged Fort Lee’s local streets in September 2013.

Federal prosecutors had previously issued a subpoena for records related to votes Samson took, but this is the first public indication that prosecutors are focusing on his relationship with United.

Samson is a founding partner of a powerful law firm in West Orange, Wolff & Samson, which has earned millions doing legal work for numerous government agencies during Christie’s tenure. In 2013, the firm was counsel to five different state agencies.

Samson also spent many weekends in South Carolina.

Property records show a home in Aiken is under the name of Samson’s wife, Joanna Dunn Samson, a former deputy commissioner for the state Department of Environmental Protection. Her profile on the website of an animal advocacy non-profit group whose board she sits on says she moved to Aiken with her husband in 2006.

Samson served as the chairman of Christie’s transition team after he was first elected, and Christie appointed him to lead the Port Authority. He was elected chairman of the agency’s board of commissioners in February 2011 and resigned on March 28, 2014, amid controversy over whether he had any role in agency decisions that benefited his law firms’ clients. The non-stop flights between Newark and Columbia began on Sept. 6, 2012, according to Lynne Douglas, a spokeswoman for the Columbia Metropolitan Airport.

There was relatively little demand.

In November 2012, there were 16 nonstop flights between the two cities, representing 800 available seats. But only 244 of them were occupied, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

A spokeswoman for United declined to say why the service, operated on Embraer 145 jets by the airlines’ ExpressJet division, was initiated or canceled, citing the investigation.

State records show that state Transportation Commissioner Fox’s previous company, Fox & Schuffler, was paid $45,000 a year to lobby on behalf of United as far back as 2011. He represented Continental Airlines in 2010, before it merged with United, records show. Christie appointed the Democrat to be his transportation chief last September. Samson and Fox, close friends, served together under former Gov. James E. McGreevey. Samson was attorney general; Fox was also McGreevey’s transportation commissioner and later his chief of staff. Fox then went on to serve as the Port Authority’s deputy executive director.

It’s unclear what role Fox had in discussions between United and the Port Authority or the Christie administration. Lobbying records show that while Fox was a lobbyist, he regularly represented the airline before New Jersey’s Departments of Labor and Treasury regarding “general aviation” and wage issues. Fox is no longer a member of the boutique firm, which has changed its name, according to its website.

Fox did not return a call on Thursday.

Samson and Christie met with United representatives at least once while negotiating, the airline has previously said. They met with company CEO Jeff Smisek on Aug. 23, 2013, for example, to discuss the airline’s operations in Newark and Atlantic City, a spokeswoman for the airline said previously. A spokesman for the governor was asked whether administration officials or the governor were aware of the flight, or the allegation that Samson had referred to it as “the chairman’s flight.” He declined to comment.

In 2013, the Port Authority promised to lengthen the PATH rail line to Newark Liberty, an extension that would directly connect Manhattan with United’s hub in Newark. And United agreed to begin flights out of Atlantic City, a key part of Christie’s effort to revive the struggling resort town.

Samson’s law firm served as bond counsel for the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which handed over operational control of the Atlantic City Airport to the Port Authority.

United pulled out of Atlantic City in November and filed a complaint with the FAA the following month alleging that the Port Authority was improperly diverting airport fees to non-aviation projects.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

George Washington Bridge Probe Finds No Direct Tie To Christie

By Shawn Boburg, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (TNS)

HACKENSACK, N.J. _ A report summarizing a yearlong investigation by the legislative panel examining the George Washington Bridge lane closures found no evidence of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s involvement but concluded that two of his allies acted “with perceived immunity” when they gridlocked Fort Lee’s streets for apparently political reasons.

The 136-report, drawing off sworn testimony, private interviews and thousands of subpoenaed documents, also highlights the unsuccessful efforts by a now-shuttered arm of Christie’s office to court the Fort Lee mayor’s endorsement, finding that the closures were “motivated in part by political considerations.”

The report states there is “no conclusive evidence” as to whether the governor “was or was not” aware of the lane closures or involved in directing them. But it catalogs several unanswered questions surrounding the scandal and cites a lack of cooperation from several key players who invoked their Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination.

Like the report commissioned by Christie’s office, it found that the “principal actors” in the scandal were former Port Authority executive David Wildstein and Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly. But it also found that Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni and former Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien share some responsibility because they were aware of the lane closures as they were happening and were aware of the public safety consequences.

Even if Kelly and Wildstein acted alone, the report states, “they did so with perceived impunity and in the environment, both in the (governor’s office) and the Port Authority, in which they felt empowered to act as they did, with little regard for public safety risks or the steadily mounting public frustrations.”

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Friend Offered Advice To Port Authority Executive As Bridge Scandal Raged

By Shawn Boburg, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

HACKENSACK, N.J. — Two days after an email surfaced in January linking the George Washington Bridge lane closures to a deputy chief of staff in New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s office — and with questions swirling about who else was involved — a top Port Authority executive who had resigned amid the scandal received some advice in a private message from a longtime friend.

“Turn the (expletives) in,” read the Jan. 10 email to former Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni, Christie’s top appointed Port Authority employee. It was from a family friend and fellow Port Authority employee, Damon DiMarco, who was co-author of a self-help weight-loss book by Baroni.

It’s not clear that DiMarco, who was one of dozens of Port Authority patronage hires under the Christie administration, had any intimate knowledge of how the lane closures came about. Nor is it clear whom DiMarco is referring to with the colorful noun.

The email, a copy of which was obtained by The Record, was turned over to a legislative panel by Baroni in response to a subpoena for documents related to the lane closures.

It is one of thousands of documents that have given lawmakers an inside look at communications between key figures in the scandal. Some of the written communications have more than one possible meaning.

Neither Baroni nor DiMarco provided comment for this story.

The email chain contains messages between DiMarco and Baroni in the days after the now well-known email, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” written by Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, surfaced. The first of the visible messages in the chain was written hours after Christie held a two-hour news conference announcing he had fired Kelly and had cut ties with his two-time campaign manager, Bill Stepien.

“Still digesting what I’ve seen today. How are you holding up?” DiMarco wrote to Baroni on Jan. 9. “Here if you need me.”

Baroni, who had resigned weeks earlier, responded: “Its (sic) been a surreal day.”

A day later, on Jan. 10, Baroni wrote to DiMarco, “About to get brutal.” It’s not clear what Baroni was referring to, but that evening DiMarco responded with the advice to turn in people.

Before DiMarco and Baroni exchanged the emails, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey had announced it was initiating a review of the lane closures. The review has turned into a special grand jury investigation that is ongoing, a year after the lane closures began last Sept. 9.

DiMarco and Baroni went to high school together in Hamilton. Baroni recommended him for a part-time job as the Port Authority’s “employee publications editor.” He still works at the Port Authority.

The two also were co-authors of Baroni’s first-person account of overcoming obesity, “Fat Kid Got Fit.” DiMarco’s sister-in-law, Gretchen DiMarco, was also hired as Baroni’s executive assistant at the agency.

Baroni had told state lawmakers at a hearing in November that the lane closures were part of a traffic study, and he said that they were orchestrated by another Christie ally at the Port Authority, David Wildstein.

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat from Teaneck, said the DiMarco email raises more questions than it answers.

“Until we know who DiMarco is referring to, it could be anybody,” she said.

News of the email comes a day after new details emerged regarding Baroni’s reaction to the reversal of the lane closures on Sept. 13 of last year.

The lane closures, which gridlocked Fort Lee for parts of five days, were reversed by the Port Authority’s executive director, Pat Foye, a New York appointee who has said he only became aware of the operation after an inquiry by The Record four days after it began.

Foye and Baroni, the top executives from New York and New Jersey, met hours after Foye sent out an angry email reopening the lanes and calling the closures potentially illegal. In that meeting, Baroni told Foye the closures were “something Trenton wanted,” according to a report on The Wall Street Journal‘s website, which cited anonymous sources. It’s not clear who was meant by “Trenton,” the website reported.

Photo: Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr

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Phone Data Sought On Christie’s Aide

By Shawn Boburg, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

HACKENSACK, N.J. — Lawmakers investigating the George Washington Bridge lane closings are going after the telephone records of a top aide of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, employing a new tactic in an apparent challenge to the aide’s earlier sworn testimony.

Dozens of subpoenas issued by the state legislative panel thus far have been directed at current or former government employees or offices, ordering them to go through their own files and produce documents related to the scandal.

But the latest demand for records, issued on Monday, was sent to the telecommunications company AT&T, requesting a month of phone data — including text messages — sent or received by a Christie staffer who previously testified that she had erased a communication sent to the governor at a crucial time during the unfolding scandal.

AT&T’s response to the subpoena is likely to test the legislative panel’s legal authority to obtain otherwise private text messages from a third-party telecommunications company. Such information, when sought by law enforcement, sometimes requires a search warrant. AT&T representatives did not respond to a message left at their National Subpoena Compliance Center in Florida asking if they would comply with the demand for a month of text messages sent by Regina Egea, chief of Christie’s authorities unit.

Asked about any potential legal concerns, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the panel’s Democratic co-chairman, said, “We have been guided by our counsel who advised us this was an appropriate way to seek information.”

The subpoena requests all Egea’s incoming and outgoing calls and text messages for December 2013.

On Dec. 9, Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye and two agency employees who manage the bridge testified that a Christie loyalist at the agency had ordered the lane closings. Egea told lawmakers during her hearing in July that she recalled sending Christie a text while watching the December testimony and commenting on how “professional” the Port Authority employees seemed, but she said she believed it had been erased.

The governor has said he doesn’t recall the text message.

Democratic leaders of the legislative panel said on Wednesday that the phone logs and messages, if turned over by the company, would confirm whether Egea was accurate in her description of the erased communication and whether there were other text messages.

“This is the one and only time the head of the authorities unit texted the governor about Bridgegate?” asked state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat and co-chairwoman of the panel. “It just doesn’t sound very forthcoming.”

Wisniewski said that the committee had only received two e-mails involving the governor in response to a subpoena requesting all office communications related to the lane closings. The messages, already released, concerned a statement issued about former Port Authority executive David Wildstein’s resignation.

“For someone who quite visibly uses his hand-held device to communicate, it’s remarkable to have only those two communications,” Wisniewski said.

The governor’s office declined to comment on the subpoena.

State Sen. Kevin O’Toole, a Republican lawmaker on the panel who often defends the administration, also did not return a request for comment.

The subpoena signaled that the panel intends to continue to gather information despite its stalled efforts to call more witnesses.

Weinberg said that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey as recently as a week and a half ago requested that the panel refrain from calling 13 people identified as potential witnesses.
Federal prosecutors are conducting their own grand jury investigation.

Wisniewski and Weinberg said the committee’s attorney has instead been conducting informational interviews with undisclosed people.

Weinberg said she would also like to issue a subpoena to the governor’s office, demanding a list kept by Christie staffers of 100 towns that were the focus of extensive outreach.

One Christie staffer, Matt Mowers, testified that the list was composed of “politically intriguing” towns, but documents turned over also show that staffers volunteering for Christie’s campaign tracked endorsements from some of the officials in towns on the list.

The governor’s office previously provided the list, referred to as the T-100 list, but all towns except Fort Lee were blacked out, she said. Democrats want to know if the Christie administration, during regular government work hours and using public resources, used the list to court political endorsements leading up to the voting last November, when the governor was reelected.

Photo: Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr

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Manhattan DA Probes Secret Settlement Between Port Authority, Seaport Company

By Shawn Boburg, The Record

HACKENSACK, N.J. — The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office is investigating a secret $25 million legal settlement between the Port Authority and a politically connected seaport company that excused $15 million in unpaid rent at the docks in Brooklyn and Newark and handed over $10 million of public money to cover other debts.

Prosecutors have sent the Port Authority a wide-ranging subpoena requesting information about its 2011 agreement with American Stevedoring Inc. and any related communications involving the offices of Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, according to two sources with knowledge of the subpoena.

The 2011 agreement, struck in exchange for the company agreeing to leave the Port Authority’s seaport terminals, was hashed out behind closed doors, and the negotiations were closely monitored by the offices of Nadler and Cuomo, a review of dozens of internal agency documents obtained by The Record shows. The Port Authority’s executive director at the time was Christopher Ward, who had been the chief executive at ASI before he was appointed to lead the agency in 2008 by New York Gov. David Paterson.

Even though the deal provided millions of dollars to the company, the Port Authority — which gets much of its money from tolls on the Hudson River crossings but also leases land at the region’s ports — never disclosed the pact to the public, as it does with other settlements.

The focus of the district attorney’s probe is unknown.

The bi-state agency had a lengthy, mostly bitter relationship with ASI, a port company that unloaded cargo from ships and had a history of not paying its rent. But the company and its colorful owner, Sabato “Sal” Catucci, worked hard to cultivate politicians, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions over the years, including nearly $20,000 to Nadler, who has long fought to keep Brooklyn’s small, struggling seaport, a source of blue-collar jobs, running. That effort included pushing for the Port Authority to provide operating subsidies to ASI and its predecessors at the seaport.

The dispute between the Port Authority and ASI came to a boiling point in mid-2011, after ASI — already locked in a pair of legal actions against the agency over its lease — had gone nearly three years without paying rent.

To get ASI to leave Brooklyn’s Red Hook Container Terminal and put an end to the litigation, the Port Authority agreed not only to forgive the $15 million in unpaid rent — it also agreed to pay the company’s long list of debts owed to third parties. That included money ASI owed to other companies affiliated with Catucci or his family members, according to a copy of the settlement.

More than $931,000 went to a separate company owned by Catucci, who federal prosecutors have described in court papers as a mob associate — an allegation a company spokesman strongly denied. An additional $2.3 million went to a waterfront company run by Catucci’s brother, Ronald Catucci. And the Port Authority also agreed to cover ASI’s unpaid bills for utilities, insurance, city and state taxes — even $201 owed to a medical imaging company and $71 to FedEx.

At the time of the settlement, Ward’s top adviser at the agency led the negotiations and the push to get ASI off the waterfront, internal documents show, writing in one internal memo that ASI had, for two decades, survived “off of public subsidies and political pressure.”

The adviser, Drew Warshaw, noted in a memo to a Cuomo administration official that the relationship between ASI and the Port Authority “has been of particular interest to Congressman Nadler, who has been very vocal in his support of ASI.” Nadler had in the past, he wrote, worked to get ASI subsidies to cover unpaid rent.

The investigation is the latest in a series of inquiries by several law enforcement agencies amid the increasing scrutiny arising out of the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal. It is also one of the first signs that investigators are also looking at the Port Authority’s activities in New York.

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the subpoena, which was issued in April, or on the focus of the probe.

In a statement issued by Nadler’s office, a spokesman acknowledged the congressman’s office played “a constructive role” in the negotiations at the request of the Port Authority and ASI, attending meetings with top Port Authority officials. It said the involvement was part of a 30-year record of strong advocacy for Brooklyn’s port. Investigators had not contacted Nadler’s office, the statement said.

Spokesmen for Christie and Cuomo did not respond to requests for comment.

Ward, the former Port Authority executive director who had previously worked for ASI, defended the deal Tuesday.

“It was time to end the failed ASI model,” he said, adding that “removing ASI at a reasonable cost will allow the city to realize enormous economic benefits of a re-imagined waterfront.”

A spokesman for ASI, meanwhile, said that the deal was “unilaterally” pushed by the Port Authority to force the company out of the ports and that neither ASI nor Catucci profited from the deal.

“This was a ridiculous deal that wasted toll payers’ money and served nothing more than vindictiveness and to stand in the way of economic development,” the spokesman said.

A company official who would only speak on condition that his name was not used because of the investigation said ASI had also received a subpoena from Manhattan prosecutors for documents related to the deal.

A Port Authority spokesman said the agency had not released the $25 million agreement to the public because of litigation but declined further comment. By contrast, the agency regularly reports legal settlements for as little as a few hundred dollars on its web site.

The dispute over ASI’s lease at Brooklyn’s last remaining seaport has been marked by rancor and recriminations and colored by competing visions for prime waterfront property that could serve as either a beachhead for a blue-collar job market in Brooklyn or as an opportunity for parkland and luxury housing.

Port Authority officials argued that ASI’s business model — using Port Authority-owned barges to move cargo unloaded in Brooklyn to New Jersey — was broken. In essence, the bulk of the cargo shipped to the Brooklyn port was then shipped again to Port Newark where it was unloaded once more and placed on trains or trucks. ASI has argued in several lawsuits that its leases, last renewed in 2008, were unfair and that the Port Authority has purposefully undermined its business.

But ASI has had strong political advocates outside the Port Authority who argued for keeping the Brooklyn operation open. In a 2011 memo to Cuomo’s office, Warshaw, the top adviser to Ward, who was then Port Authority executive director, said the company had gotten its rent forgiven twice in the past — both times at the request of former New York Gov. Paterson’s office. He also estimated that ASI had gotten $64 million in public subsidies over the previous 15 years, $54 million of that to keep the Port Authority-owned barges between Brooklyn and New Jersey running.

ASI was a prolific donor during roughly the same time frame.

Between 1997 and 2011, Sal Catucci, the company’s owner; his wife, Lorraine, and ASI gave more than $315,000 to political campaigns, according to an analysis of campaign federal, state and city campaign records. The biggest amount went to the New York State Conservative Party. The Catuccis and ASI donated nearly $30,000 after 2008, around the time the company stopped paying the Port Authority rent. There were no direct donations to either Christie or Cuomo. The most recent donation to Nadler was in 2006.

But when the Port Authority approached ASI about cutting ties in June 2011, it sent a copy of the proposed settlement agreement to Nadler’s chief of staff, Amy Rutkin, according to agency emails. The initial offer by the Port Authority was $2 million. An ASI executive, Matt Yates, wrote back, in an email also copied to officials in Nadler’s and Cuomo’s offices. He called the Port Authority offer “extremely low” and asked for $104.75 million.

The memos reviewed by The Record do not show that Nadler’s office or any other public officials pushed for additional money for Catucci, although they do show aides were extensively involved. Nadler’s office got daily updates of progress in the negotiations, and before the negotiations began, Port officials sought feedback from Nadler’s office on the parameters of the deal, the records show.

The congressman’s spokesman, Aaron Keyak, said that Nadler had been a “30-year champion for the Port” and had promoted previous operators at Red Hook.

“Over this time, there arose many threats to the port and many challenges to each of its operators and Rep. Nadler has acted throughout as a staunch port advocate,” he wrote. “When the Port Authority and ASI were negotiating a settlement agreement, Rep. Nadler’s office played a constructive role — at the request of both parties — to keep the discussions ongoing in order to ensure the seamless continuation of port operations.”

The documents do show that Ward, in at least one case, directed Port Authority staff in negotiations with his former employer, ASI, although it was in an effort to rein in the offer.

“I think our offer should be ‘we will consider all your payables and provide another 500 grand,'” he wrote in an internal email on June 27, 2011 before a negotiating session. “I would not go up more than another 350 over the coming days.”

The final agreement, providing $25 million to ASI, was approved unanimously by Port Authority commissioners, including chairman and Christie appointee David Samson, in a July 2011 meeting behind closed doors. It included $400,000 cash to ASI and an additional $9.8 million to pay off the company’s accumulated debt.

According to the settlement, $931,000 went to pay American Chassis Pool Systems, a Catucci-owned company that state records show closed down at the end of 2011. The Port Authority paid $1 million that was owed to New York State and $77,000 in unpaid fees to the Waterfront Commission, which was created in the 1950s to root out organized crime on the waterfront.

And nearly $350,000 was earmarked for ASI’s attorneys at law firm Weiss & Hiller.

There were small bills, too: $770 to a heating and cooling company, $48 to the Brooklyn postmaster, $198 to UPS and $929 for an office supply store.

In the settlement, ASI and the Port Authority agreed to drop their lawsuits against each other – in the Port Authority’s case, an effort to evict the firm for not paying its rent, and in ASI’s case, a complaint alleging the Port Authority unfairly charged the company more than other port tenants.

ASI had three leases that the Port Authority officials estimated in internal documents should have brought about $5 million in annual revenue to the agency.

An ASI spokesman said the settlement was “plainly a ridiculous and bad deal all around” and claimed that the company was forced out of the port against its will. The company has filed a lawsuit against a dockworkers union — International Longshoremen’s Association — since then, alleging that it was also threatened and pressured by the longshoremen.

The ASI spokesman also disputed 2007 court documents in which federal prosecutors refer to Catucci, who has not been charged with a crime, as either an associate of the Gambino or Genovese crime families.

“ASI has a multi-decade track record of fighting organized crime, including litigation fighting the ILA (International Longshoremen’s Association), and any statements to the contrary are ridiculous,” the spokesman said.

State records show Catucci’s brother, Ronald, is a vice president at American Maritime Services Inc. Ronald Catucci, however, was also listed in campaign finance documents as ASI’s treasurer as recently as 2005.

The Port Authority agreed to give ASI $2.3 million to pay American Maritime Services for labor provided to ASI, according to the agreement.

AMS, based in Woodbridge, has had its own allegations of mob influence.

In a 2012 agreement with the Waterfront Commission, and signed by Ronald Catucci, AMS agreed to hire an independent monitor to root out corruption and mob influence in the firm, alleged to have put a known organized crime figure on the payroll. And in June, one of its workers, Francis Mangano Jr., was banned from working on the docks after an investigation by the Waterfront Commission found he had ties with the associates of the Bonanno and Colombo crime families.

Neither Catucci has ever been charged with a crime.

Meanwhile, back in Brooklyn, a new tenant, a beer distributor, took over the Red Hook facility.

But the Port Authority is still losing money. In late 2011, when it made the transition, the Port Authority estimated it would lose about $9 million in the first year under the new lease, including new subsidies to keep the Brooklyn port running.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Key Christie Aide Saw GWB Flap As Infighting

By Shawn Boburg, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

HACKENSACK, N.J. — A top Christie official who was among the first to learn of allegations last September that the George Washington Bridge lane closures were potentially illegal testified Thursday that she didn’t inform the governor or her other superiors because she chalked up the allegations to infighting at the Port Authority.

But Democrats leading a legislative panel investigating the lane-closure scandal portrayed Regina Egea’s inaction as a convenient “lack of curiosity” as the Christie administration received multiple warning signs that the lane closures were more than just a traffic study. The leaders of the committee vowed to press on with their investigation, despite few new revelations on Thursday about the origin of the lane closures.

Egea, Gov. Chris Christie’s liaison to the state’s independent authorities and the fifth person to testify under oath before the panel, said she had no previous knowledge of the lane closures orchestrated by Christie appointees at the Port Authority, apparently as an act of political retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee.

The nearly seven-hour hearing on Thursday focused on Egea’s reaction to early allegations that the closures were improper and her involvement in preparing a Christie appointee for testimony in November in which he attributed the lane closures to a traffic study.
Egea said she took the word of Bill Baroni, the Port Authority’s deputy executive director and a Christie appointee, that there was a legitimate traffic study. She began to question the study only after learning during testimony of other Port Authority officials in December that the closures were not necessary to study traffic flow at the entrance to the bridge.

Egea also came under fire Thursday for deleting a text message she said she sent to Christie in December, after damaging testimony by those Port Authority officials before that committee hearing. Egea said that in the text message she commented that one of the Port Authority officials who undercut the traffic study was “very professional.” But Democrats, who said the text message had not been handed over in response to subpoenas issued to Egea and the governor’s office, said it raised questions about whether there were other relevant records the administration officials had deleted.

As Egea testified in Trenton, top federal prosecutor made rare public comments about his criminal investigation into the lane closures, discounting recent news reports that said indictments were imminent.

“Reports in the press that purport to describe what I might be thinking or what the people who are working on that matter might be thinking or contemplating have been almost entirely incorrect. You should be wary of reports that attribute — are for attribution or otherwise — what we’re thinking or what we’re doing,” U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said after an unrelated event in Newark.

Fishman’s comments were in response to a recent story by Esquire magazine that stated that four Christie aides could be indicted as early as this month.

There are signs, however, that Fishman’s office is actively investigating. His office has asked the legislative panel not to call several witnesses to testify publicly, casting uncertainty over the future of the lawmakers’ investigation. Leaders of the legislative panel said Thursday that those people may become available to give testimony in the future, and they did not rule out more hearings.
A co-chairman of the committee, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, said the Christie administration repeatedly failed to ask questions about the lane closures because “they didn’t want to know the answer.”

For Egea, the chief of the governor’s authorities unit, the first chance came on the last day of the lane closures.

On that day, an e-mail by the Port Authority’s Executive Director Pat Foye, a New York appointee, calling the closures “abusive” and potentially illegal was forwarded to her. But Egea said Thursday that she saw “no evidence” to support the allegations at the time and waved off the missive as an effort to damage New Jersey’s appointees at the bi-state agency.

She did not report the email to the governor or any of her superiors in the office, she said.

Photo: Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr

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Feds Seek To Talk To More Port Authority Officials As Bridge Probe Widens, Sources Say

By Shawn Boburg, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

HACKENSACK, N.J.—Federal prosecutors have summoned or expressed interest in talking to up to a half-dozen current Port Authority officials as a grand jury investigation into the George Washington Bridge lane closures accelerates, sources familiar with the matter said.

The contact suggests the investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey into the lane closures is entering a new phase.

“The pace of this appears to be picking up,” said another source familiar with the matter.

Among the Port Authority officials whom federal prosecutors want to hear from is Phil Kwon, the Port Authority deputy general counsel. Kwon, who has received a subpoena to appear before a grand jury, prepared former Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni for testimony before the state Legislature when Baroni said in November – while not under oath – that the lane closures were part of a traffic study.

Since then, the legitimacy of the traffic study has been largely undercut, dismissed by critics as a cover story for politically motivated lane closures that created a traffic jam in Fort Lee.

The prospect of Kwon testifying or otherwise disclosing his advice to Baroni puts the Port Authority in an awkward legal position.

The Port Authority has said Kwon was acting as Baroni’s legal representative at the time, meaning the discussions Kwon had with Baroni might be protected by attorney-client privilege. That protection could be invoked by the Port Authority even if Kwon were subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury, a source said, unless prosecutors could prove that the advice has already been shared with third parties.

The Port Authority could also agree to waive the privilege. It’s not clear if the agency has done so, or will do so.

Kwon interacted with several officials within Christie’s office and discussed Baroni’s testimony with them, according to an internal review Christie commissioned. Those communications could be fair game for prosecutors if they are determined to be outside his official duties as legal counsel to the Port Authority.

Kwon, who was once Christie’s pick to serve on the state Supreme Court, was not among the 75 individuals interviewed by the legal team hired by Christie from the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. The legal team, led by former federal prosecutor Randy Mastro, did not interview anyone who was employed at the Port Authority at the time of the lane closures in September.

The sources would not identify the other Port Authority officials who have been summoned by federal prosecutors, but two of the sources said they are people with knowledge of how the lane closures came about. It’s also not clear how many of them have already spoken with federal prosecutors or how many have been called to appear before a grand jury.

“We can’t discuss the specifics of ongoing investigations,” said Rebekah Carmichael, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The Port Authority declined to comment, as did Kwon’s attorney, Geoffrey S. Berman.

The federal prosecutors’ requests for interviews and testimony from Port Authority officials come as a legislative investigation also begins more than a month of scheduled in-person testimony.

John Wisniewski, co-chairman of the joint committee investigating the lane closures, said Thursday that the committee has scheduled weekly appearances of key witnesses through early June.

Former Christie aide Christina Renna has been asked to testify on Tuesday. A week later, on May 13, Christie’s spokesman Michael Drewniak is expected to testify. On May 20, it will be Matt Mowers, a former campaign staffer; and on June 3, Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye and William “Pat” Schuber, who sits on the board, will be asked to testify.

Photo:  Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr

Manhattan DA Opens Probe Into Port Authority

By Shawn Boburg, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

HACKENSACK, N.J.—The Manhattan district attorney has launched a wide-ranging investigation into the Port Authority, issuing a subpoena for communications between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s office and agency officials, a source familiar with the matter said Saturday.

The development signaled the opening of a new legal front in the controversy surrounding New Jersey’s beleaguered chief executive.

The subpoena, issued by the office of Cyrus Vance Jr. in March, requests the communications and other documents related to the rebuilding of the World Trade Center, the Port Authority’s takeover of operations at the Atlantic City Airport and the diversion of $1.8 billion in Port Authority money for construction of New Jersey roads, the source said.

Investigators, who have already begun conducting interviews, are looking at potential conflicts of interest among commissioners and whether the Christie administration’s tapping of Port Authority funds to rebuild the Pulaski Skyway and other state-owned roads was legally authorized, a second person familiar with the investigation said.

The subpoena, served on the Port Authority, means a second law-enforcement agency, besides the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey, is looking at controversies that have emerged or attracted scrutiny in the aftermath of the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal.

The office of U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Paul Fishman was notified before Manhattan’s district attorney issued the subpoena and was not surprised by it, said a third source familiar with talks between the offices. It’s unclear if the two offices are conducting parallel investigations or are working in tandem.

The Manhattan prosecutors’ focus on the Pulaski Skyway follows a report in The Record last month that found Port Authority lawyers expressed concern in 2011 that diverting $1.8 billion from the agency to state roadway projects in New Jersey was not legal without approval from lawmakers in New York and New Jersey.

Christie administration officials, internal Port Authority documents show, pushed for the money anyway, requiring a creative and complex legal justification that agency attorneys privately called “questionable.” Agency lawyers declared that the roadways, all in Hudson and Essex counties, were access roads to the Port Authority’s Lincoln Tunnel, even though the roads are miles from the tunnel in Weehawken and do not directly connect to it.

Investigators in Manhattan have been looking at the Port Authority’s assertion in official statements to bondholders that the road projects, which involve the Pulaski Skyway, Route 139, Wittpenn Bridge and Portway New Road, were properly authorized, and investigating whether the move violated New York’s state securities or state income-tax laws, one of the sources said. All the roadways are owned by New Jersey.

The northbound lanes of the Pulaski Skyway were closed Saturday and will remain that way for two years during a project to rebuild the 3.5-mile span. The elevated roadway was built in the early 1930s to provide access to the Holland Tunnel and now suffers from serious structural problems.

Vance’s office is also interested in whether the Port Authority’s governor-appointed commissioners — many of whom are titans of private industry in engineering, real estate and law — have taken part in agency decisions that overlap with their private business interests, one source said.

A representative of Fishman’s office in New Jersey referred questions to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which did not respond to requests for comment through its spokeswoman. Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts declined to comment.

The subpoena appeared to be wide-ranging, leading one person familiar with its contents to call it “a fishing expedition.” All of the people who spoke about the investigation agreed to do so only on the condition they not be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Amid the increasing scrutiny on the Port Authority, at least one commissioner appears to be preparing to step down, one of the sources said.

New Jersey Commissioner Anthony Sartor, who has been dogged by conflict-of-interest controversies because he owns a large engineering company and has led a committee that oversees construction at the World Trade Center, was expected to resign shortly, the person said. Sartor, who has been on the board nearly 15 years, has not been accused of any wrongdoing and has recused himself from nearly all World Trade Center votes in recent years.

New Jersey’s U.S. attorney has also issued a subpoena related to apparent conflicts involving former Port Authority Chairman David Samson, who is a founder of a prominent law firm that represents clients who have done business with the authority.

The investigation by Vance’s office appears to be looking at other commissioners’ potential conflicts and how those are handled internally, as well. The subpoena requests documents related to several specific World Trade Center votes, including approvals related to the $4 billion transportation hub under construction at the site in downtown Manhattan.

“They’re looking at conflicts, conflict policies, how conflicts are tracked and how they’re reported,” one source said of investigators from Vance’s office. The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News reported Vance’s interest on Saturday.

Port Authority commissioners fill out financial-disclosure forms once a year and are responsible for updating them periodically. The agency’s legal department, led by Darrell Buchbinder, who also holds the title of chief ethics officer, uses those lists to notify commissioners when a matter might present a conflict, but the decision of whether to vote is left to individual commissioners.

Samson, who resigned last month, has drawn criticism for voting on matters that benefited clients of his law firm, Wolff & Samson. His firm served as bond counsel for the South Jersey Transportation Agency, which last year handed over operational control of the Atlantic City Airport to the Port Authority. Samson recused himself from that vote, but spoke favorably about the decision afterward in response to questions from reporters, WNYC radio reported.

A Port Authority spokesman declined to comment .

In addition to the new probe and the investigation by Fishman’s office, a panel of state legislators has also been looking into the lane closures and related matters.

A report commissioned by Christie and released late last month cleared the governor of any wrongdoing. It was widely criticized as a “whitewash” by Democrats and others who cited Christie’s ties to members of the team of attorneys that led the investigation.

AFP Photo/Eric Thayer

Manhattan DA Opens Probe Into Port Authority

By Shawn Boburg, The Record

HACKENSACK, N.J. — The Manhattan district attorney has launched a wide-ranging investigation into the Port Authority, issuing a subpoena for communications between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s office and agency officials, a source familiar with the matter said Saturday.

The development signaled the opening of a new legal front in the controversy surrounding New Jersey’s beleaguered chief executive.

The subpoena, issued by the office of Cyrus Vance Jr. in March, requests the communications and other documents related to the rebuilding of the World Trade Center, the Port Authority’s takeover of operations at the Atlantic City Airport and the diversion of $1.8 billion in Port Authority money for construction of New Jersey roads, the source said.

Investigators, who have already begun conducting interviews, are looking at potential conflicts of interest among commissioners and whether the Christie administration’s tapping of Port Authority funds to rebuild the Pulaski Skyway and other state-owned roads was legally authorized, a second person familiar with the investigation said.

The subpoena, served on the Port Authority, means a second law-enforcement agency, besides the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey, is looking at controversies that have emerged or attracted scrutiny in the aftermath of the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal.

The office of U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Paul Fishman was notified before Manhattan’s district attorney issued the subpoena and was not surprised by it, said a third source familiar with talks between the offices. It’s unclear if the two offices are conducting parallel investigations or are working in tandem.

The Manhattan prosecutors’ focus on the Pulaski Skyway follows a report in The Record last month that found Port Authority lawyers expressed concern in 2011 that diverting $1.8 billion from the agency to state roadway projects in New Jersey was not legal without approval from lawmakers in New York and New Jersey.

Christie administration officials, internal Port Authority documents show, pushed for the money anyway, requiring a creative and complex legal justification that agency attorneys privately called “questionable.” Agency lawyers declared that the roadways, all in Hudson and Essex counties, were access roads to the Port Authority’s Lincoln Tunnel, even though the roads are miles from the tunnel in Weehawken and do not directly connect to it.

Investigators in Manhattan have been looking at the Port Authority’s assertion in official statements to bondholders that the road projects, which involve the Pulaski Skyway, Route 139, Wittpenn Bridge and Portway New Road, were properly authorized, and investigating whether the move violated New York’s state securities or state income-tax laws, one of the sources said. All the roadways are owned by New Jersey.

The northbound lanes of the Pulaski Skyway were closed Saturday and will remain that way for two years during a project to rebuild the 3.5-mile span. The elevated roadway was built in the early 1930s to provide access to the Holland Tunnel and now suffers from serious structural problems.

Vance’s office is also interested in whether the Port Authority’s governor-appointed commissioners — many of whom are titans of private industry in engineering, real estate and law — have taken part in agency decisions that overlap with their private business interests, one source said.

A representative of Fishman’s office in New Jersey referred questions to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which did not respond to requests for comment through its spokeswoman. Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts declined to comment.

The subpoena appeared to be wide-ranging, leading one person familiar with its contents to call it “a fishing expedition.” All of the people who spoke about the investigation agreed to do so only on the condition they not be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Amid the increasing scrutiny on the Port Authority, at least one commissioner appears to be preparing to step down, one of the sources said.

New Jersey Commissioner Anthony Sartor, who has been dogged by conflict-of-interest controversies because he owns a large engineering company and has led a committee that oversees construction at the World Trade Center, was expected to resign shortly, the person said. Sartor, who has been on the board nearly 15 years, has not been accused of any wrongdoing and has recused himself from nearly all World Trade Center votes in recent years.

New Jersey’s U.S. attorney has also issued a subpoena related to apparent conflicts involving former Port Authority Chairman David Samson, who is a founder of a prominent law firm that represents clients who have done business with the authority.

The investigation by Vance’s office appears to be looking at other commissioners’ potential conflicts and how those are handled internally, as well. The subpoena requests documents related to several specific World Trade Center votes, including approvals related to the $4 billion transportation hub under construction at the site in downtown Manhattan.

“They’re looking at conflicts, conflict policies, how conflicts are tracked and how they’re reported,” one source said of investigators from Vance’s office. The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News reported Vance’s interest on Saturday.

Port Authority commissioners fill out financial-disclosure forms once a year and are responsible for updating them periodically. The agency’s legal department, led by Darrell Buchbinder, who also holds the title of chief ethics officer, uses those lists to notify commissioners when a matter might present a conflict, but the decision of whether to vote is left to individual commissioners.

Samson, who resigned last month, has drawn criticism for voting on matters that benefited clients of his law firm, Wolff & Samson. His firm served as bond counsel for the South Jersey Transportation Agency, which last year handed over operational control of the Atlantic City Airport to the Port Authority. Samson recused himself from that vote, but spoke favorably about the decision afterward in response to questions from reporters, WNYC radio reported.

A Port Authority spokesman declined to comment .

In addition to the new probe and the investigation by Fishman’s office, a panel of state legislators has also been looking into the lane closures and related matters.

A report commissioned by Christie and released late last month cleared the governor of any wrongdoing. It was widely criticized as a “whitewash” by Democrats and others who cited Christie’s ties to members of the team of attorneys that led the investigation.

Photo:  Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr

Judge: Christie Ex-Aides Kelly, Stepien Can Withhold Documents In Bridge Probe

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.”

Kelly’s attorney, Michael Critchley, called the decision a “complete rejection of the committee’s attempt to strip Ms. Kelly of her constitutional rights.”

Christie fired Kelly and cut ties with Stepien in early January after the surfacing of e-mails that shed light on the closures and linked them to the governor’s office. Wildstein turned over many of the most explosive documents in response to a subpoena.

Among the documents he turned over was an e-mail from Kelly — “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” it said — and an e-mail showing that Stepien referred to the Fort Lee mayor an “idiot.” Christie cut ties with both in January, saying he had lost faith in Stepien’s judgment and that Kelly lied about not having been involved in the lane closures.

Stepien’s attorney said Wednesday that the governor had “banished” his client, “an innocent man.”

“The time has come to acknowledge that a mistake was made,” Marino wrote.

Kelly and Stepien, both of whom have been contacted by federal investigators, argued that turning over documents to state lawmakers could ensnare them in the criminal investigation, violating their Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. The committee “failed” to overcome those individual protections partly because it could not prove that any particular documents actually exist. In essence, the committee could not prove it wasn’t on “a fishing expedition,” the judge wrote.

Among the documents requested by the subpoenas were all correspondence and logs of phone conversations related to the lane closures dating back to September 2012. The judge said the “fundamental” problem with the subpoenas was that they were too broad.

The judge took a swipe at the committee’s argument that Kelly and Stepien couldn’t issue a blanket denial in response to the subpoenas.

“A blanket subpoena calling for a fishing expedition without the promise of immunity justifies a blanket response,” Jacobson wrote.

But she raised the possibility of reworked subpoenas. She wrote that the “committee may wish to issue a new subpoena entirely” and suggested that more limited document requests — for example, a demand for correspondence only between Wildstein and Kelly — might have passed muster.

Jacobson also wrote that the committee has the authority to grant Kelly and Stepien immunity from criminal prosecution if it wants them to cooperate. It’s not clear if that’s a possibility, but it would almost certainly complicate the federal criminal investigation. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment.

The ruling prompted Republicans to call for a shift in the focus of the investigation.

Republican Assemblywoman Amy Handlin, a member of the Democrat-controlled committee, issued a statement late Wednesday stating that the judge’s decision “sends a clear message that the committee has overstepped its bounds.”

She said that federal and state prosecutors are able to investigate the closures and that the committee should “focus on reform” of the Port Authority, the agency that controls the bridge.

“Every single person out there wants to know why this happened but the U.S. Attorney is more than competent to conduct an investigation,” said GOP Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi.

Even one Democratic leader, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, said earlier this week that the committee should stand down if the judge ruled against the committee. But Sweeney, who has worked closely with Christie, quickly reversed course, saying he supports the committee’s work and that it should consider all its options, including an appeal, if the judge ruled against the committee.

Photo: Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr

Judge: Christie Ex-Aides Kelly, Stepien Can Withhold Documents In Bridge Probe

By Shawn Boburg, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

HACKENSACK, N.J.—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.”

Kelly’s attorney, Michael Critchley, called the decision a “complete rejection of the committee’s attempt to strip Ms. Kelly of her constitutional rights.”

Christie fired Kelly and cut ties with Stepien in early January after the surfacing of e-mails that shed light on the closures and linked them to the governor’s office. Wildstein turned over many of the most explosive documents in response to a subpoena.

Among the documents he turned over was an e-mail from Kelly — “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” it said — and an e-mail showing that Stepien referred to the Fort Lee mayor an “idiot.” Christie cut ties with both in January, saying he had lost faith in Stepien’s judgment and that Kelly lied about not having been involved in the lane closures.

Stepien’s attorney said Wednesday that the governor had “banished” his client, “an innocent man.”

“The time has come to acknowledge that a mistake was made,” Marino wrote.

Kelly and Stepien, both of whom have been contacted by federal investigators, argued that turning over documents to state lawmakers could ensnare them in the criminal investigation, violating their Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. The committee “failed” to overcome those individual protections partly because it could not prove that any particular documents actually exist. In essence, the committee could not prove it wasn’t on “a fishing expedition,” the judge wrote.

Among the documents requested by the subpoenas were all correspondence and logs of phone conversations related to the lane closures dating back to September 2012. The judge said the “fundamental” problem with the subpoenas was that they were too broad.

The judge took a swipe at the committee’s argument that Kelly and Stepien couldn’t issue a blanket denial in response to the subpoenas.

“A blanket subpoena calling for a fishing expedition without the promise of immunity justifies a blanket response,” Jacobson wrote.

But she raised the possibility of reworked subpoenas. She wrote that the “committee may wish to issue a new subpoena entirely” and suggested that more limited document requests — for example, a demand for correspondence only between Wildstein and Kelly — might have passed muster.

Jacobson also wrote that the committee has the authority to grant Kelly and Stepien immunity from criminal prosecution if it wants them to cooperate. It’s not clear if that’s a possibility, but it would almost certainly complicate the federal criminal investigation. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment.

Legal experts said the panel still has several outlets open for obtaining the documents it requested.

“What I would recommend if I was their counsel is, they need to read the opinion closely and reword the subpoena to avoid the fishing problem,” said George Thomas, a Rutgers University law professor and an expert on the Fifth Amendment.

The panel could issue a new subpoena that is more specific — requesting all the e-mails between Kelly and Stepien and pages from their personal planners within a two-week date range, for example. It could subpoena other people who would have received the documents. And it could request many of the documents from Kelly and Stepien’s cell phone companies and e-mail providers.

“There are other ways to get this information,” said James Cohen, a Fordham Law professor who teaches courses on criminal procedure and trial procedure. “I don’t think these are handwritten documents that were stuffed in a drawer and locked up. These are digital documents that are kept on servers, and the individuals don’t have any personal right to bar the subpoena of the server.”

The ruling prompted Republicans to call for a shift in the focus of the investigation.

Republican Assemblywoman Amy Handlin, a member of the Democrat-controlled committee, issued a statement late Wednesday stating that the judge’s decision “sends a clear message that the committee has overstepped its bounds.”

She said that federal and state prosecutors are able to investigate the closures and that the committee should “focus on reform” of the Port Authority, the agency that controls the bridge.

“Every single person out there wants to know why this happened but the U.S. Attorney is more than competent to conduct an investigation,” said GOP Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi.

Even one Democratic leader, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, said earlier this week that the committee should stand down if the judge ruled against the committee. But Sweeney, who has worked closely with Christie, quickly reversed course, saying he supports the committee’s work and that it should consider all its options, including an appeal, if the judge ruled against the committee.

Photo:  Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr

Fired Christie Aide Invokes 5th Amendment, Declines To Produce Subpoenaed Documents

By Melissa Hayes and Shawn Boburg, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

HACKENSACK, N.J. — Federal prosecutors investigating the George Washington Bridge lane closures have demanded documents from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s office, he said Monday, a development that puts him at the opposite end from the kind of probe he once led as the state’s hard-charging U.S. attorney.

Christie acknowledged the subpoenas during a radio interview Monday evening, as news broke that his former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, would not turn over documents in response to a subpoena issued by state lawmakers in a parallel investigation. An attorney for Kelly — who wrote the message “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” — cited Kelly’s constitutional protection against self-incrimination. She joins Christie’s campaign manager as the second person to put up a roadblock to an ongoing legislative probe.

But the fact that federal prosecutors sent a subpoena to Christie’s office signaled that the more high-stakes federal investigation had taken a serious turn for the governor who was considered a presidential contender only a few weeks ago. Christie emphatically told listeners of his monthly radio show that he didn’t know about the lane closures beforehand and pledged to get to the bottom of them as he cooperates with subpoenas from both the legislative panel and the U.S. attorney’s office.

“Before these lanes were closed I knew nothing about it,” he said on Ask the Governor on WKXW-FM Monday night. “I didn’t plan it. I didn’t authorize it. I didn’t approve it. I knew nothing about it.”

Christie spoke just two hours after the deadline for 18 individuals, his campaign and his office to respond to legislative subpoenas seeking emails, text messages and other documents related to the lane closures, which many Democrats believe were retribution against the Fort Lee mayor for not endorsing the Republican governor, who won re-election in a landslide last year.

Several individuals asked for extensions. But Michael Critchley Sr., an attorney for Kelly, notified the legislative panel Monday evening that she would not turn over documents. Kelly joins Christie’s former campaign manager, Bill Stepien, in invoking her constitutional right to protect against self-incrimination. Stepien’s attorney said Friday he would not turn over documents.

The information requested by the legislative panel, Critchley wrote Monday, “directly overlaps with a parallel federal grand jury investigation.” The letter also cites her right to privacy. In a brief phone interview, Critchley said his client had not received a subpoena from federal prosecutors.

Providing the committee with “unfettered access to, among other things, Ms. Kelly’s personal diaries, calendars and all of her electronic devices amounts to an inappropriate and unlimited invasion of Ms. Kelly’s personal privacy and would also potentially reveal highly personal confidential communications completely unrelated to the reassignment of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge,” Critchley wrote.

“I would hope they would share information, any information they have that would let me get to the bottom of it, but on the other hand, they have constitutional rights like everybody else and have the right to exercise them. There’s nothing I can do about that,” Christie said when asked on the radio program about her refusal to comply with the subpoena.

Christie, who said he fired Kelly because she lied to him, has also said he did not ask her why she apparently ordered the lanes closed.

The governor said he is cooperating with subpoenas from both the legislative panel and the U.S. attorney’s office. On the radio show he said his office began turning over documents to the Joint Legislative Select Committee on Investigations on Monday and will do so on a rolling basis as they are located.

An attorney for his campaign said earlier in the day it had received an extension while it seeks approval from the State Election Law Enforcement Commission to use campaign funds to pay for legal bills and to hire a document retention firm. The legislative panel also granted an extension to Christina Genovese Renna, who served as director of intergovernmental affairs under Kelly until she resigned Friday.

Christie also used the radio show to dispute a former political appointee’s assertion that he knew about the closures when they happening and said he hired a high-powered law firm to carry out a swift investigation so he can get answers.

“I can’t wait for them to be finished so I can get the full story here,” he said.

Christie didn’t rule out that he might have heard about traffic but said he didn’t know there was a problem until Patrick Foye, executive director of the Port Authority, sent an internal email, which was leaked to the press, questioning the closures.

Though the governor spoke at length about the September traffic jam, most callers to the show were seeking information on other issues and Christie worked to put the incident behind him saying he met with Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto for an hour and a half Monday to talk about their agenda for the year.

“They and I understand that our job is to run the state of New Jersey,” he said.

There was no mention on the show of criticism from Environment New Jersey that Christie’s administration pushed for a natural gas pipeline through the pinelands, a protected area, because Genovese Renna’s husband works for the company. A spokesman for the governor called the idea “ludicrous” and a company spokesman said Renna, president of South Jersey Industries, had nothing to do with the utility subsidiary responsible for the project.

In a joint statement Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, also a Democrat, who co-chair the legislative committee, said Monday that “numerous extensions have been granted to subpoena recipients.” Weinberg said she did know who was given extensions and a spokesman for Wisniewski declined to provide additional information.

“No documents will be released today,” the statement said. “The committee will announce its next step as soon as that course is decided.”

In an interview, Weinberg said the committee was discussing the decisions by Kelly and Stepien to invoke the Fifth.

“It’s frustrating when we’re trying to find the truth of the situation that started with the governor saying he was going to cooperate and urge others to do the same,” Weinberg said. “Obviously, we’ll have to keep plugging away.”

Four Republican committee members — Assemblywomen Holly Schepisi and Amy Handlin, Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll and Sen. Kevin O’Toole — sent a letter to the chairs Monday seeking equal access to documents and information.

Schepisi said Monday she learned that the committee’s special counsel, Reid Schar, had met with the U.S. attorney’s office after reading it in The Record newspaper over the weekend. Wisniewski and Weinberg released a statement from Schar about the Friday meeting to the media on Saturday.

Schepisi said all of the members of the committee — and not just the chairs — should be receiving regular updates for the sake of “transparency, openness, fairness and ensuring that our committee is not abusing power as it’s investigating abuse of power.”

Weinberg said she thought Schar’s statement went to all members of the committee and that the Republicans would get equal access to the documents once they come in.

The lane closures have shaken up the governor’s inner circle. Christie fired Kelly and cut ties with Stepien after he called the Fort Lee mayor an “idiot” in an email. Wildstein and Bill Baroni, who Christie named deputy executive director of the Port Authority, have both resigned. Wildstein and Baroni were also subpoenaed.

In a letter Friday, Wildstein’s attorney said “evidence exists” that Christie knew about the closures when they happened. Christie denied the allegation Monday after his staff sent an email attacking Wildstein’s credibility Saturday.

AFP Photo/Jim Watson

Christie Knew About GWB Lane Closures, Lawyer For Port Authority Exec Says

By Shawn Boburg, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

HACKENSACK, N.J. — An ex-aide to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie at the Port Authority on Friday disputed the governor’s account of his knowledge of the September lane closures on the George Washington Bridge.

In a letter, an attorney for David Wildstein, the Port Authority executive who ordered the lane closures, wrote that “evidence exists … tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the Governor stated publicly in a two-hour press conference … ”

The letter, addressed to Port Authority officials who have declined to pay Wildstein’s legal bills, marks the first time that someone within the Christie administration has implicated the governor directly to the scandal.

“Mr. Wildstein contests the accuracy of various statements that the Governor made about him and he can prove the inaccuracy of some,” Wildstein’s attorney, Alan Zegas wrote.

The letter does not specify what evidence Wildstein has, and it does not say whether Christie knew of the reasons for the lane closures. Christie has previously said he believed the closures were part of a legitimate traffic study. Wildstein’s attorney has publicly said his client would tell his side of the story if he was granted immunity from criminal prosecution by New Jersey, New York and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Asked if the U.S. Attorney’s Office was aware of Wildstein’s attorney’s allegations and whether it was investigating Christie’s possible knowledge of the lane closures, spokeswoman Rebekah Carmichael said, “We can’t discuss the specifics of an ongoing inquiry.”

Wildstein went to high school with Christie. The governor recommended him for a newly created position at the Port Authority, director of interstate capital projects, in 2010. Wildstein had a reputation as fiercely loyal political operative inside the bi-state agency. It was Wildstein who orchestrated the lane closures after he received an email from Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, that stated: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

In his press conference just before Wildstein was set to testify for a legislative panel investigating the lane closures, the governor announced that he had fired Kelly and he said he did not have a close relationship with Wildstein. He said he didn’t find out about the lane closures until they were reversed.

“There’s no way that anybody would think that I know about everything that’s going on, not only in every agency of government at all times, but also every independent authority that New Jersey either has on its own or by state — both with New York, with Pennsylvania and with Delaware. So what I can tell you is if people find that hard to believe, I don’t know what else to say except to tell them that I had no knowledge of this — of the planning, the execution or anything about it — and that I first found out about it after it was over.”

The Record newspaper has Port Authority photos showing the governor and Wildstein together on the Sept. 11 anniversary, on the third day of the lane closures.

Christie was asked at a Dec. 13 press conference announcing the resignation of his top Port Authority executive whether the lane closures and the problems they caused in Fort Lee were ever brought to his attention the week the lanes were closed.

“Never. No,” the governor said. He added later that the first time he heard about the issue was when an internal email by the executive director was leaked to the media weeks after the closures. “It was certainly well after the whole thing was over before I heard about it.”

Last week, the Port Authority denied Wildstein’s request that the agency pay for his legal representation as multiple investigations unfold, including one by the U.S. Attorney in New Jersey. The Port Authority’s lawyer wrote to Wildstein that paying his legal bills “would not be warranted under the Port Authority’s by-laws.”

The letter released Friday was a response to that decision.

“I would request that you kindly reconsider the Port Authority’s decision to deny Mr. Wildstein payment of his legal fees and indemnification,” it said, adding that the Port Authority did not offer a reason for the denial.

In an indication of fractures between Christie’s former allies, Wildstein’s attorney also questioned why a request for legal representation by Bill Baroni, Christie’s top executive at the Port Authority, was still under consideration. Baroni, Zegas wrote, told a committee, while not under oath, that the lane closures were part of a traffic study, “answers directly at variance with” the subsequent sworn testimony of the agency’s executive director, Pat Foye.

Wildstein’s attorney also included references to other controversies that have bubbled up, but did not say whether he had information about them. Wildstein was intimately involved with internal deliberations of Christie’s inner circle at the Port Authority, including with Baroni and Chairman David Samson.

“Subsequent to Mr. Wildstein testifying, there have been reports that certain Commissioners of the Port Authority have been connected directly or indirectly to land deals involving the Port Authority, that Port Authority funds were allocated to projects connected to persons who supported the administration of Governor Chris Christie or whose political support he sought, with some of the projects having no relationship to the business of the Port Authority, and that Port Authority funds were held back from those who refused to support the Governor.”

Wildstein’s attorney also wrote that a Port Authority lawyer advised Baroni before he went before the legislative committee and defended what he described as a traffic study. “The counseling, as I understand it, was conducted over a period of four to five days, and Mr. Wildstein was present for much of it.” The letter does not name the attorney who advised Baroni, but Christie has placed several attorneys tied to his administration in the Port Authority’s legal department.

The release of the letter came days before a critical moment in the legislative investigation into the lane closures. Responses to 20 subpoenas issued by a joint panel are due Monday, but at least one key player challenged the authority of the committee’s demands for documents.

The lawyer representing Christie’s former campaign manager Bill Stepien sent a lengthy letter to the legislative panel Friday invoking his client’s constitutional protection against self-incrimination. The letter by attorney Kevin Marino cites an ongoing federal grand jury investigation and states that there’s a possibility that documents Stepien provides “might compel him to furnish a link in the chain of evidence that could be used to ensnare him in the ambiguous circumstances of a criminal prosecution.”

Stepien, Marino wrote, is innocent of any wrongdoing, criminal or otherwise.

Stepien is one of 18 individual who got subpoenas from a legislative panel investigating the September lane closures, apparently an act of political revenge. Assemblyman John Wisniewski said Friday that lawyers for most of the individuals have asked for time extensions or will provide documents on a rolling basis “within a reasonable timeframe.”

Wisniewski said he had not yet read Marino’s letter, which requested that the committee withdraw the supboena to Stepien, and said he would review it with the committee’s special counsel, former federal prosecutor Reid Schar. He said he does expect some documents to be handed over Monday.

“We’ll start getting some documents on Monday, and I think we’ll get a lot by the end of the week. Then we’ll have to start the intensive process of reviewing them,” said Wisniewski, a Democrat.

AFP Photo/Jeff Zelevansky