New Jersey Superior Court Judge Mary C. Jacobson ruled Wednesday that Gov. Chris Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Ann Kelly, and ex-campaign manager, Bill Stepien, do not have to comply with subpoenas issued by the state Legislature’s special committee dedicated to investigating last September’s lane closures on the George Washington Bridge.
Jacobson dismissed the committee’s complaint, which asked the two former Christie aides to turn over “any and all” documents related to the lane closures. The judge ruled the subpoenas were “overbroad” and might force Stepien and Kelly to incriminate themselves.
Attorneys for the committee had argued the subpoenas did violate Stepien’s and Kelly’s Fifth Amendment rights not to incriminate themselves, because the committee does not have the power to prosecute them criminally. However, Jacobson ruled the ongoing federal investigation into the lane closures means Stepien and Kelly have a “reasonable” fear of facing prosecution for “official misconduct” in state or federal criminal court.
“The unique facts of these cases reveal a prospect of criminal investigation that is not merely hypothetical. It is clear that a federal investigation has been launched,” Jacobson said. “It is possible that either Mr. Stepien or Ms. Kelly could be prosecuted for such conduct as a result of the documents requested by the subpoenas, either as principals or as accomplices.”
The lane closures led to days of traffic in Fort Lee, N.J. Some Democrats have alleged the closures were ordered by Christie’s allies to retaliate against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for declining to endorse the governor’s re-election bid last year. Documents subpoenaed by the committee from other officials have indicated both Kelly and Stepien were involved in discussions about the order to close the lanes.
Another issue facing Jacobson was whether the subpoenas were a “fishing expedition.” Jacobson said the subpoenas would, in effect, be forcing Kelly and Stepien to testify and potentially incriminate themselves if they requested documents where the committee did not have “prior knowledge that the documents exist.” According to Jacobson, this would make the subpoenas “testimonial” in nature and not merely a request to produce documents. In this case, Jacobson said the subpoenas were “topically limited, but … also extremely broad” and, as a result, would require Kelly and Stepien to use their “mental faculties and thought processes” to identify documents and communications the committee was not certain existed.
“The fundamental problem with the subpoenas is that they are overbroad,” Jacobson said.
In spite of all this, Jacobson seemed to leave an opening for the committee to issue other subpoenas to Kelly and Stepien. Jacobson said the committee’s special counsel, Reid Schar, argued information from other subpoenas issued by the committee in January showed the subpoenas sent to Kelly and Stepien were not a fishing expedition and asked for documents that definitely exist. However, Jacobson specified the committee must have been certain of the existence of these documents it requested “at the time” the subpoenas to Stepien and Kelly were issued. This could leave room for the committee to request documents again based on the information it has.
In a statement sent to Business Insider, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, one of the committee’s co-chairs, said the committee would “consider alternatives.”
“The committee will consult with its counsel and consider its options. 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. We will continue exploring every avenue to find out what happened with this threat to public safety and abuse of government power,” Wisniewski said.
Late last month, lawyers with the firm of Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher LLP who were hired by Christie’s office to conduct a review of the lane closures issued their report. That internal review, which was spearheaded by Gibson Dunn partner Randy Mastro, found Kelly was one of only two officials who “knowingly participated” in a scheme to shut the lanes “at least in some part, for some ulterior motive to target Mayor Sokolich.” The report said Stepien “knew” about the plan to close the lanes ahead of time, but was not aware of any “ulterior motive.” It also cleared Christie of any wrongdoing in relation to the closures.
In a statement sent to Business Insider on Tuesday, Stepien’s attorney, Kevin Marino, said Jacobson’s decision and the Christie administration’s internal review were a “complete vindication” of his client.
“Today’s opinion, like the Mastro Report that preceded it, represents a complete vindication of Bill Stepien. 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. 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,” Marino said.
The committee met in closed session Tuesday and a source in the State House told Business Insider it may issue more subpoenas soon.
In January, Christie fired Kelly and cut ties with Stepien following the allegations they were involved in discussions about the closures. Marino suggested the governor should correct the “mistake” made when Stepien was forced to remove his name from the running to be chairman of the New Jersey Republican Party and to leave his position as a consultant with the Republican Governor’s Association, which is chaired by Christie.
“Three months ago, this innocent man was banished without cause from positions of trust and respect that he earned through fifteen years of diligence and excellence that made him the finest political consultant in America,” Marino said of Stepien. “The time has come to acknowledge that a mistake was made.”
Kelly’s lawyer, Michael Critchley, did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Business Insider.
Read Jacobson’s full opinion below.
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