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Christie, Legislature on Collision Course for Constitutional Showdown

Wisniewski had already said he planned to start with Kelly, the deputy chief of staff who evidently ran a political operation within the governor’s office that included the incriminating August 13 email to Wildstein that it was “Time for traffic problems in Fort Lee,” and Stepien, Kelly’s predecessor and political mentor who had served as campaign manager for Christie’s winning 2009 and 2013 races. Christie last week fired Kelly and severed all ties with Stepien, including his nomination as state Republican chairman and his consulting contract with the Republican Governors Association, which Christie heads.

Other top targets named in the emails and other documents subpoenaed last month from Wildstein and Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni, both of whom resigned in December, included:

  • Drewniak, the governor’s press secretary and close aide since Christie became U.S. Attorney in 2001, who approved the Port Authority’s September 12 press release blaming the four days of lane closures on an apparently phantom traffic study, planned how to stonewall subsequent media inquiries, and met with his friend Wildstein right before his resignation.

  • Egea, the director of the Governor’s Authorities Unit whom Baroni sent Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye’s September 13 memo reversing the lane closures, which Foye said not only delayed emergency vehicles, but also “violates Federal Law and the laws of both States." It is unclear whether or how Egea, whom Christie last month appointed as his Chief of Staff, traditionally the second-most-powerful post in the governor’s office, followed up on the memo.

  • Port Authority Chairman David Samson, who worked with Baroni to attempt to squelch Foye’s public disclosure of the secret lane closures.

  • Charles McKenna, the governor’s former chief counsel who carefully watched Baroni’s testimony before Wisniewski’s Assembly Transportation Committee in late November and reported that Baroni did “great.”

  • Comella, Christie’s communications director and Drewniak’s boss, who worked with Stepien on Giuliani’s failed presidential campaign in 2008 before latching onto Christie.

The subpoenas presumably would have included O’Dowd, Kelly’s direct boss as chief of staff, whose nomination by Christie to become state Attorney General has been stalled in the wake of the Bridgegate scandal. Democrats will want to know what he knew about Kelly’s activities before allowing his nomination to go to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Matt Mowers, the regional director for the Christie campaign whose responsibility included Bergen County and who was the campaign staffer who reportedly approached Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich to ask for his endorsement before the bridge closings, also received a subpoena, according to a release issued by the New Hampshire Republican Party. Mowers was named executive director of the New Hampshire GOP following Christie’s reelection in what was widely seen as a move by Christie to put a trusted aide in a key position in an important 2016 presidential primary state.

The three organizations that received subpoenas are most likely the Governor’s Office, the Port Authority, which has previously been subpoenaed, and the Christie campaign, where both Stepien and Mowers worked at the time of the George Washington Bridge lane closures.

‘Zero Evidence’

The wave of subpoenas last night overshadowed yesterday’s pronouncement in Washington by U.S. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) that his U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation had found “zero evidence” in documents supplied by the Port Authority to support the notion that the George Washington Bridge lanes were closed for a legitimate traffic study. “It is unconscionable that anyone would block commercial traffic and risk the safety of thousands on our interstate highway system in this way,” Rockefeller declared.

The issuance of the Assembly subpoenas also took away some of the luster from the announcement by Weinberg, the Senate majority leader whose Bergen County district includes Fort Lee, that Kelly, Egea, and Stepien would be the first three recipients of subpoenas to be issued by her Senate Select Committee on Investigations.

Republicans in both houses questioned the need and the extra financial cost of the Assembly and Senate appointing two separate investigative committees, a decision that Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) blamed on the unwillingness of Assembly Democratic leaders to agree to form a single joint committee.

“Leave it to Democrats to foul up what should be an easy slam dunk by having to create two committees!” one Democrat fumed privately.

Wisniewski said yesterday that the Assembly Select Committee on Investigation is “on a much faster track than the newly formed Senate committee could ever be” because it is a continuation of the Assembly Transportation Committee investigation whose subpoena powers led to the cache of documents that included the email tracing the lane closures to Kelly.

Indeed, Wisniewski was ready to present his new committee with 20 fully prepared subpoenas yesterday afternoon based specifically on the thousands of pages of documents produced by Wildstein, Baroni, and other Port Authority officials in response to the Assembly Transportation Committee’s subpoenas.

Sweeney appointed the seven members of Weinberg’s committee yesterday, but the panel did not meet, and whether it would issue separate subpoenas to Kelly, Stepien, and Egea now that the Wisniewski committee has already done so is unclear. Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Essex), a close Christie ally whom the governor unsuccessfully tried to have replace Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean (R-Union), will be a fierce advocate for Christie’s interests on the panel.

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