A New Jersey judge has ruled that two key figures in a political payback scandal ensnaring Gov. Chris Christie's administration do not have to turn over documents to a legislative investigative panel.
Former Christie loyalists Bridget Kelly and Bill Stepien had been fighting subpoenas calling for them to turn over documents regarding the plot to create traffic jams in Fort Lee to retaliate against the town's Democratic mayor. The legislative panel asked for the court's help in getting the two to comply.
Calling the decision one involving "complicated and untested jurisdictional issues," Judge Mary Jacobson expressed reservations about using judicial power to compel the production of documents.
"The fact that the committee has the power to enforce its own subpoenas through orders to compel and grant immunity in return, and the lack of a clear jurisdictional basis for this court to intrude upon that power, raises serious questions concerning the exercise of judicial power," Jacobson wrote in the 98-page opinion.
Her ruling is almost certain to be appealed. Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the investigative committee's Democratic co-chair, said he and his colleagues would consult with their attorneys on any further moves.
"The committee felt it was very much in the public interest to seek to compel the production of these documents, but as we've said before, there's more than one method to gather information in an investigation, and we will consider alternatives," Wisniewski said Wednesday. "We will continue exploring every avenue to find out what happened with this threat to public safety and abuse of government power."
Kevin Marino, an attorney representing Stepien, called the ruling "a complete vindication."
"In its zeal to achieve a blatantly political goal having nothing to do with Mr. Stepien, the Committee disregarded the fundamental constitutional rights of this innocent man," Marino said in a statement. "In the process, it wasted the taxpayers' money — and the nation's time — on a frivolous lawsuit to enforce a clearly invalid subpoena. That lawsuit has now been properly and roundly rejected."
Kelly's lawyer, Michael Critchley, said in a statement that the ruling provided a lesson for "all the naysayers who criticized Ms. Kelly for asserting her constitutional rights."
"The decision is thorough and well-reasoned and is a complete rejection of the committee's attempt to strip Ms. Kelly of her constitutional rights," Critchley said.
The case has become a major distraction for Christie and is threatening to derail any plans to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
A report that exonerated him has done little to quell critics because it was written by lawyers he hired and did not include interviews with key figures such as Kelly, Stepien and David Wildstein, the political operative who is believed to have dreamed up the scheme.
Attorneys for Kelly and Stepien have asserted that the pair's Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination due to an ongoing federal criminal investigation into the September traffic jams.
The legislative panel's attorneys argued that the law does not entitle Kelly and Stepien to blanket protections from such subpoenas. They maintain that exceptions would have to be argued case-by-case.
In her opinion, Jacobson noted that the case presents a unique legal challenge because the vast majority of Fifth Amendment cases involve criminal proceedings, not legislative subpoenas issued while a federal probe is under way that could lead to criminal charges.
Wednesday's opinion didn't confirm or deny that either Stepien or Kelly have been subpoenaed by the U.S. attorney's office, but it noted that federal prosecutors have contacted both of them, as well as Kelly's family and Stepien's landlady.
"Mr. Stepien and Ms. Kelly could face prosecution for official misconduct in either State or federal court, and the conduct that could form the basis for the prosecution is exactly the type of conduct being investigated by the Committee," the judge wrote. "Under these circumstances, it is reasonable for Mr. Stepien and Ms. Kelly to fear that they currently face the hazard of prosecution in the concurrent federal investigation."
Christie fired Kelly, who was a deputy chief of staff in the governor's office, and cut ties with Stepien, his former campaign manager, after learning in January that Kelly set the lane closings in motion with the message, "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."
Though no evidence has been made public that Stepien knew of the plot in advance, Christie said he lost confidence in his adviser's judgment after reading emails in which he refers to Fort Lee's mayor as "an idiot" and appears to shrug off the traffic chaos the plot was causing.
Christie has said he had no knowledge of the planning or execution of the lane closings until well afterward.
Wildstein says he talked to Christie about the traffic jams on Sept. 11, the third day the lanes were blocked, but Christie says he doesn't recall the conversation. Stepien and others were forwarded an email from the mayor complaining about the gridlock on Sept. 12, the fourth and final full day that the lanes approaching the George Washington Bridge were blocked. The executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency in charge of the bridge, ordered the approach lanes reopened the morning of Sept. 13.
Stepien has since found work with a Republican consulting firm based in Minnesota. Kelly, a single mother of four, is unemployed.
Their lawyers contend that the legislative panel could grant Kelly and Stepien immunity from prosecution in exchange for the documents. Reid Schar, the panel's lead lawyer, says the joint legislative body has no such powers.
Other people and organizations close to Christie, including his re-election campaign, are complying with legislative subpoenas. The first to do so was Wildstein, who turned over documents the committee requested but later invoked his Fifth Amendment right when called before the committee to testify.