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Christie, Legislature on Collision Course for Constitutional Showdown

Governor hedges on cooperation with legislative committees as Wisniewski issues 20 subpoenas

Wisniewski and Bramnick
State Assemblymen John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), on left, and Jon Bramnick (R-Union) conferring before Assembly vote on the special committee

Gov. Chris Christie and the Democratic Legislature appeared headed toward a constitutional showdown over the Bridgegate scandal yesterday, as Christie weighed his legal options and Republicans questioned the partisanship of an Assembly committee that issued 20 subpoenas to targets that included some of the highest-ranking members of Christie’s inner circle.

The unexpectedly large list of subpoenas issued yesterday by Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), chair of the Assembly Select Committee on Investigations, made it clear that he was aiming beyond fired Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly and dismissed campaign guru Bill Stepien to target all of the top Christie aides named in previously subpoenaed documents released last week -- a list that stops just short of the governor himself.

The short-term disruption in the embattled governor’s office is likely to be significant, with current Chief of Staff Regina Egea, former Chief of Staff and Attorney-General-in-waiting Kevin O’Dowd, Press Secretary Michael Drewniak, and Communications Director Maria Comella all reportedly receiving subpoenas answerable in two weeks with public testimony under oath likely to follow in mid-February.

Christie’s best options yesterday seemed to be either to invoke some level of executive privilege to protect the inner workings of his governor’s office from public scrutiny or to argue that the public investigations by the legislative committees would interfere with a proper probe by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Such an investigation by the U.S. Attorney could take Bridgegate out of the public eye for months, and its closed-door inquiry would avert the damaging spectacle of a series of Christie aides following the lead of the Port Authority’s David Wildstein in taking the Fifth Amendment.

For Christie, still the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in an NBC/Marist University poll released Wednesday, the stakes are high. The governor, who dropped from just three points behind Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton to 13 points down in the wake of Bridgegate, has a dinner with major Republican donors in Florida Sunday hosted by Home Depot founder Ken Langone, who urged him to run for president in 2012. Christie, who is chairman of the Republican Governors Association, will be raising money for Florida Gov. Rick Scott, but a planned public event was cancelled after Bridgegate became national news last week.

Plotting a Legal Strategy

To develop its legal strategy, the Christie administration yesterday announced it was hiring the law firm of Randy Mastro, a New York lawyer who served as deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani, one of Christie’s most vocal defenders in the Bridgegate scandal, to serve as outside counsel and effectively as the gatekeeper for the production of the thousands of documents that will be sought by the half-dozen investigations now underway.

Christie, who said last week he did not interview Kelly and Stepien because he did not want to be accused of interfering with ongoing investigations, announced yesterday that he is conducting his own “internal review to uncover the facts surrounding the lane closures in Fort Lee,” and that his administration would be “fully cooperating with the U.S. Attorney inquiry and other appropriate inquiries and requests for information.”

Christie’s press statement pointedly left out any specific commitment to cooperate with the special investigative committees that were formed by the Assembly and Senate yesterday. The statement used the same “appropriate inquiries” disclaimer that Christie used in his State of the State speech Tuesday, which aroused Democratic suspicions that the governor might be planning to stonewall the legislative committees.

No Comment on Cooperation

“Is this an ‘appropriate’ investigation?” Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) asked. “We’ll have to wait to see,” he said, adding that he “couldn’t comment” on whether the governor would cooperate with the Wisniewski committee or the Senate panel chaired by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen).

“My concern is that if you’re going to act like a prosecutor, you run the risk of exposing innocent people to public scrutiny,” Bramnick said of Wisniewski. “You’re talking about taking private communications that were made in the expectation of privacy and subjecting them to public scrutiny. It’s not obstructionism, it’s a legitimate institutional concern for people in government that their privacy should be respected.”

Republicans in both the Senate and Assembly yesterday rallied around Christie, questioning the partisan motives of Democratic leaders. Assemblywoman Amy Handlin (R-Monmouth) demanded assurance that the Wisniewski committee “will not be a Coliseum that exists solely for the purpose of throwing as many people as possible to the lions.”

Wisniewski dismissed the partisan criticism and said he would expect the governor to act in good faith unless he proves otherwise. “We have no reason to believe the governor won’t cooperate. We are certainly an ‘appropriate’ investigation,” he insisted. Wisniewski brought in his own heavy hitter as special counsel to the committee, hiring Reid Schar, the former assistant U.S. Attorney who successfully prosecuted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Wisniewski’s committee met behind closed doors in executive session yesterday before agreeing to issue subpoenas to 17 individuals and three organizations. While Handlin and the other three Republicans on the committee tried unsuccessfully to prevent Wisniewski from being given the unilateral power to issue subpoenas, Wisniewski said all four Republicans approved the subpoenas being issued.

While Wisniewski declined to name the individuals and groups receiving the subpoenas because he did not want them to find out about it on TV or from other publications, his acknowledgement that subpoenas were going to those who received emails or texts about the George Washington Bridge lane closures or their aftermath left little mystery about most of the names on the subpoena list.

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