TRENTON, N.J. – 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.
Lawyers for the legislative panel countered any such documents deemed potentially incriminating by Kelly and Stepien should be argued on a case-by-case basis.
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 is unlikely to rule on the request 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. 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 a Christie loyalist at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency that runs the bridge.
Lawyers for Kelly and Stepien also said the subpoena amounts to a fishing expedition, but the panel's attorneys 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 are the basis on which legislative lawyer Reid Schar argued that the subpoena for additional lane-closing documents is based on knowledge, not guesswork.
Christie dismissed Kelly 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.