Compounding the political peril for Christie, whose two-month lead in polls for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 will likely end when the post-Bridgegate polls come out, is the national media feeding frenzy that the scandal has unleashed. The demand of the 24-hour news cycle is not only making a media star out of Wisniewski, who will be on CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday morning, but giving Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), the Democrat Christie defeated in a landslide last November, more positive air time than she received during her entire campaign.
“These investigations could run for months, and do real damage,” said Monmouth University professor Patrick Murray. “The problem with the story that is emerging is that it looks like the Christie people aren’t able to accept a loss. They take it personally when someone doesn’t go along with them, and they retaliate. And the problem with that is that people start making comparisons to Watergate, which started out in a very similar way.”
Indeed, Democratic legislators, including Weinberg and Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen), have compared the present scandal to Watergate, in that both cases involved “dirty tricks” employed by staffers for candidates trying to run up big majorities in elections they were already guaranteed to win handily. Ironically, yesterday was the birthday of Richard Nixon, the GOP president brought down by his part in the Watergate coverup 50 years ago this year.
Another similarity with the Watergate scandal was the sight of Wildstein invoking his Fifth Amendment rights before the Wisniewski committee yesterday.
A frustrated Assemblyman John Wisniewski holds a Q&A with reporters following the committee hearing in which Wildstein pleaded the fifth, refused to answer questions, and was held in contempt by the committee.
Theobtained by New Jersey Spotlight and other news organizations Wednesday and flashed on screens during Wildstein’s appearance before the Assembly Transportation Committee yesterday implicated Kelly, Wildstein and Bill Baroni, the Port Authority deputy executive director appointed by Christie, in the controversial lane closures that were evidently intended to punish Fort Lee Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich for refusing to endorse Christie for reelection.
Alan Zegas, Wildstein’s lawyer, said his client was invoking his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent under the U.S. Constitution and the New Jersey Constitution for fear that his statements would be used against him in the investigation launched by the U.S. Attorney’s Office just hours before Wildstein’s hearing yesterday.
Wisniewski told Wildstein and Zegas that the statute granting subpoena power to the Assembly Transportation Committee specifically prohibited witnesses from relying upon the Fifth Amendment and barred use of any testimony before the committee in any criminal prosecution.
Assemblyman Tom Giblin (D-Essex), who said he has known Wildstein for 25 years, urged him to stop invoking the Fifth Amendment. “Silence is not golden today, it exacerbates the feeling among the public that something else was going on here, that political retribution was taking place. Don’t let David Wildstein be the fall guy.”
When Wildstein still demurred, the bipartisan committee of Democrats and Republicans voted unanimously to hold Wildstein in contempt, a fourth-degree misdemeanor charge that Wisniewski said the committee would refer to the county prosecutor.
If Zegas appeals the contempt citation, his argument that the Fifth Amendment trumps the committee’s statutory requirement to testify could set a precedent for future witnesses. Zegas offered Wisniewski another option, however.
“If the U.S. Attorney and the Attorneys General of New York and New Jersey agree to provide Mr. Wildstein with immunity, he would be able to provide the answers you seek,” Zegas said following the vote on the contempt motion.
Zegas agreed to meet with Wisniewski’s legal staff to review the reasons for the redactions in the more than 900 pages of emails, texts and documents that Wildstein supplied to the committee, which are expected to be made public today.