By Noreen O'Donnell
(Reuters) - New Jersey state legislators voted on Monday to merge parallel investigations into the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal ensnaring Republican Governor Chris Christie.
The newly-formed joint committee will have the power to subpoena witnesses and correspondence and to order testimony under oath as part of its investigation into allegations that a gubernatorial aide engineered the traffic jam to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, which abuts the bridge.
It will also examine the abuse of government power, the investigating committee of eight Democrats and four Republicans from the state's Assembly and Senate said in a statement.
"Throughout the earlier stages of this investigation, it became clear that for every answer we uncovered, many more questions arose," Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a leader of the probe as the head of the Assembly Transportation Committee, said in a statement.
"Forming this joint committee is the best way to streamline and expedite our inquiry in order to obtain the answers we need to prevent future abuses of power," Wisniewski said.
He and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, another Democrat, will co-chair the new panel. They said in a joint statement that 20 subpoenas issued previously by the Assembly committee will now be reissued by the joint committee "with an unchanged return date of February 3."
The committee's special counsel is Reid Schar, a Chicago lawyer who as an assistant U.S. attorney, prosecuted both corruption trials of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey is also looking into the traffic tie-ups over four days in September 2013, nicknamed "Bridgegate" by local newspapers, which angered commuters and delayed school buses and ambulances. It has issued subpoenas to Christie's campaign as well as the state Republican Party.
Christie, seen as a top Republican contender for the White House in 2016, has denied being part of a scheme to snarl traffic at the bridge linking New York and New Jersey by abruptly closing access lanes. He has promised cooperation with the federal probe.
E-mails released earlier this month link two of his former top aides to the traffic tie-ups after Fort Lee's mayor refused to support Christie's re-election. Christie won a second term decisively.
A recent poll shows that his support has fallen almost 20 points since his landslide re-election.
Other Democratic allegations about Christie administration strong-arm tactics have surfaced in recent weeks, including Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer's charge that Christie withheld recovery funds for Superstorm Sandy for political reasons.
Christie's office has strongly denied Zimmer's allegations.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg, G Crosse)