TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — It's now up to a judge whether two key figures in a political payback scandal ensnaring Gov. Chris Christie's administration will have to turn over text messages and other private communications to New Jersey lawmakers investigating the case.
Fired Christie staffer Bridget Kelly and two-time campaign manager Bill Stepien risk self-incrimination if they comply with the subpoenas for documents related to the traffic tie-ups at the George Washington Bridge, their lawyers told a county judge.
A lawyer for the legislative panel countered that the law does not entitle them to the blanket protection they seek. Rather, any documents deemed potentially incriminating by Kelly and Stepien should be argued on a case-by-case basis, the lawyer said.
The subpoenas seek documents concerning September's blocking of approach lanes to the bridge, which created hours-long backups in nearby Fort Lee, apparently to punish the town's Democratic mayor. Mercer County Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson requested more briefs, so is unlikely to rule before the end of the month.
Kelly was mobbed by reporters as she arrived and left the courthouse. She appeared near tears as her lawyer, Michael Critchley, explained that she chose to be in court because the outcome is of great importance to the now-unemployed single mother of four. She did not comment. Stepien's lawyer, Kevin Marino, said his client chose not to attend.
Lawyers for Kelly and Stepien partially based their 5th Amendment claims on a parallel criminal investigation by the U.S. attorney's office, which is seeking to uncover whether federal laws were broken. The legislative panel, which lacks authority to prosecute, wants to find out how high up Christie's chain of command the lane-closing scheme went and why it was hatched.
Christie, whose viability as a 2016 Republican presidential candidate has been called into question since the scandal erupted, has said he knew nothing of the plot's planning or execution. He said in December that no one on his staff was involved, a statement he was forced to retract in January when private emails showed otherwise. An email from Kelly saying "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" appeared to set the scheme in motion.
She received the reply, "got it," from David Wildstein, a Christie loyalist at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency that runs the bridge.
Wildstein complied with the legislative panel's document subpoena, but evoked his 5th Amendment right and refused to testify. A contempt complaint was referred to a county prosecutor.
The prospect of immunity for Kelly and Stepien was raised by Jacobson during Tuesday's proceeding. Legislative lawyer Reid Schar said he was unsure that the legislative panel had the authority to grant immunity, while Critchley contends the panel chose not to exercise that option because it would interfere with the U.S. attorney's investigation.
Lawyers for Kelly and Stepien also said the subpoena amounts to a fishing expedition, but Schar said the documents turned over so far make it reasonable to believe related correspondence exists and should be turned over.
The correspondence the committee has already seen is the basis on which the legislative lawyer argued that the subpoena for additional lane-closing documents is based on knowledge, not guesswork.
Schar told the judge more Kelly and Stepien emails have been revealed in subpoenaed documents provided by others, without specifying the number of documents or the content.
Christie dismissed Kelly, a deputy chief of staff, and cut ties with Stepien, who was a consultant for the Republican Governors Association at the time the scandal broke and was set to become the state GOP chairman. In all, five people close to Christie have been fired or resigned. Some 32 people or organizations close to the governor, including his re-election campaign and Republican State Committee, have been subpoenaed. All but Kelly and Stepien have complied or are in the process of producing documents.
Stepien's lawyer said FBI agents visited his client's apartment and inquired whether he paid the rent on time; Kelly's lawyer said agents sought to interview his client and her parents, but that no one was willing to talk.