Politics

Christie Bridge Scandal Reaches Court Showdown

March 11, 2014

The investigation into the George Washington Bridge lane closings hits a critical point today with a court showdown over whether the legislative panel looking into the scandal can get a judge’s order forcing two former advisers to Gov. Chris Christie to turn over records sought under subpoena.

The hearing, scheduled before state Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson in Trenton, is pivotal because Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Stepien might hold evidence critical to understanding who orchestrated the September closings.

A ruling in favor of the former advisers would be a major setback to the legislative investigation, said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University.

"Kelly and Stepien, in particular, are so obviously linked to this that it would be a blow to public perception about the legitimacy of the investigation," Harrison said. "There is a lot riding on the outcome of the hearing."

Christie fired Kelly as his deputy chief of staff in January after emails turned over to the committee revealed she was involved in the decision to close the lanes. "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," she wrote to David Wildstein, a Christie ally at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

At the same time, Christie cut ties with Stepien — his two-time campaign manager who was a consultant for the Republican Governors Association and slated to become chairman of the state Republican Party — because of derisive language used in emails and texts to describe Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich. Many contend the closings were an act of revenge against Sokolich, a Democrat, for not endorsing Christie.

Attorneys for Kelly, who will attend the hearing, and Stepien, who will not, will argue their clients must be shielded from the Legislature’s request because the act of searching for, identifying and turning over records could put them at greater risk of criminal prosecution. In court filings, both have mentioned the ongoing investigation into the bridge scandal by the U.S. Attorney’s office.

They will cite the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects citizens from testifying against themselves in criminal cases. More importantly, case law provides protection for people when the actual act of turning over records amounts to self-incrimination.

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