Matt Katz, New Jersey Public Radio
In a victory for both Gov. Chris Christie and his former aides, a New Jersey judge has ruled that two key figures in the Bridgegate scandal do not have to turn over documents to a state legislative panel.
The 98-page ruling says Bridget Kelly, the former deputy chief of staff who wrote the "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee" email, and Bill Stepien, Christie's former political adviser and campaign manager, do not have to comply with the Legislature's subpoenas. While the Democrats who control the state Legislature's investigative committee have successfully obtained documents from dozens of people, Stepien and Kelly were thought to have correspondence and other documents that could link the scandal to Christie to find out what he knew, and when.
Without these documents, the Legislature's investigation -- a major headache for the governor -- is severely curtailed.
In a hearing last month in Trenton, attorneys for the pair fought the Legislature's subpoenas and argued that the Fifth Amendment protects them from incriminating themselves. Mercer County Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson agreed, finding that given an active federal investigation into the scandal, self-incrimination was a real possibility. Although the committee argued that self-incrimination wasn't inevitable, Jacobson cited media reports and public comments by legislators to conclude that Stepien and Kelly may be under investigation by federal authorities for state crimes like official misconduct, in addition to federal offenses.
And, Jacobson ruled, even documents that show the defendants were doing government business on government time with government email accounts, the Fifth Amendment trumps any rule requiring workers to maintain public documents.
Stepien and Kelly also argued that the Fourth Amendment protects them from unreasonable searches and seizures -- a point Jacobson also agreed with, saying that the Legislature was on "a fishing expedition" asking for too broad of a range of documents. And, she said, the committee unjustly assumed that documents exist: "The Committee's sole argument is that since it is in possession of documents that reveal communications between Mr. Stepien/Ms. Kelly and David Wildstein [the Port Authority official who initiated the lane closures], further communications with an undetermined number of individuals about the lane closures must be in the possession of defendants."
Jacobson noted that the case was "challenging," presenting a "highly unusual" set of circumstances with little in the way of precedent.
For the legislative committee, an appeal is an option. But Jacobson offered other options, saying that she believes the committee has the power to grant immunity to Stepien and Kelly, thereby protecting them from prosecution based on the documents they provide. She also noted that if the Legislature granted immunity to Stepien and Kelly, that doesn't mean Stepien's evidence couldn't be used against Kelly in a criminal proceeding, and vice versa. Plus, Jacobson said, if emails involving Stepien or Kelly are held by a third party, that person or entity could be subpoenaed without violating their Fifth Amendment rights.
The legislative committee said in a statement that it will consider alternatives to get the information.
Stepien's attorney, Kevin Marino, said the ruling "represents a complete vindication of Bill Stepien." He said the committee "wasted the taxpayers' money -- and the nation's time -- on a frivolous lawsuit to enforce a clearly invalid subpoena."
And Kelly's attorney, Michael Critchley, said the ruling provided "a free tutorial on the protections the Fifth Amendment affords all citizens."