TRENTON, N.J. – The New Jersey panel that found the incriminating email — "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" — at the heart of a traffic jam scandal that now threatens Gov. Chris Christie's political ambitions is reviewing its options after a setback by a judge.
The legislative committee has been gathering emails and text messages as part of an investigation into the George Washington Bridge lane closings orchestrated by former Christie aides last September, which caused lengthy traffic jams apparently to get back at a local mayor.
But lawyers for former Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly and campaign manager Bill Stepien argued successfully that their clients risked incriminating themselves if they complied with the committee's subpoenas, and Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson ruled Wednesday in favor of the two former Christie aides.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who co-chairs the legislative panel, said he was disappointed with the ruling but not discouraged.
"While this is something we would have preferred not to have happened, it by no means signals any change or interruption in the investigation," he said in a Wednesday night appearance on MSNBC.
The panel has several options as it weighs its next steps.
Because Jacobson ruled that the subpoenas were overly broad, lawyers could rewrite them to narrow the scope. An appeal is also being considered, Wisniewski said.
The judge also ruled that the panel could grant immunity to Kelly and Stepien to get the documents. But that may interfere with a federal criminal investigation. Besides, Wisniewski said, there is no guarantee the two would accept immunity from legislative investigators without a similar gesture from federal prosecutors.
The lane closings last September caused four days of traffic mayhem in Fort Lee, the town at the base of the bridge, after the Democratic mayor did not endorse Christie. The Republican governor aggressively sought Democratic endorsements while running for re-election to burnish his bipartisan credentials ahead of a possible 2016 presidential campaign.
The legislative panel released some subpoenaed emails in January, including the message from Kelly that set the lane closings in motion. The response, "got it," came from David Wildstein, who at the time was a Christie appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency that operates the bridge.
Christie has denied any involvement in a scheme, and 26 people and organizations close to him have complied or are in the process of complying with the committee's subpoenas producing tens of thousands of pages for the committee to wade through.
The committee also is set to move ahead with other threads of its investigation, such as obtaining interview notes used by Christie's lawyers to clear the governor of knowledge of the plot, and beginning to call other witnesses to testify before the panel under oath next month.
Republicans on the panel may not want any of that to happen.
Assemblywoman Amy Handlin said the committee's only role now should be pushing reforms to the Port Authority.
"The judge's opinion sends a clear message that this committee has overstepped its bounds," she said in a statement after the ruling. The three Assembly Republicans on the panel introduced six bills to reform bi-state agencies such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge. The proposals include notifying commuters of expected traffic tie-ups and limiting the terms of the agency's top brass.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, said this week that the committee should "walk away" if the judge issued an unfavorable ruling. But he quickly backpedaled, affirming that the panel's work was not yet finished.
Messages to Sweeney and Sen. Loretta Weinberg, the panel's other co-chair who is traveling, were not immediately returned Thursday.