Democratic State Senator Loretta Weinberg, one of the co-chairs of the New Jersey Legislature’s probe into the allegations surrounding last September’s lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, told Business Insider Monday the investigatory committee will be issuing more subpoenas this week. Weinberg also discussed where the committee would be focusing its efforts in coming weeks.
The lane closures led to days of paralyzing traffic in Fort Lee, N.J. Some Democrats have alleged they were ordered by allies of Republican Gov. Chris Christie because Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich did not endorse the governor’s re-election bid. Weinberg said officials at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which oversees the bridge, would be among those who received the upcoming subpoenas. According to Weinberg, one of the main questions investigators hope to answer with the upcoming subpoenas is whether Port Authority officials took action after learning of the closures.
“We’re not sure who knew [about the closures] during, but we know lots of people knew after,” Weinberg said. “What have they done for the past few months that this has been public and what was their responsibility?”
On April 7, Business Insider reported the committee would be sending more subpoenas. On Thursday, Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the committee’s other co-chair, told NJ.com it would be calling more than 10 witnesses to testify. Wisniewski, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Business Insider Monday, would not rule out the possibility Christie himself could be called to testify.
Last month, lawyers hired by Christie’s office released an internal review of the closures that found the governor “did not know of the lane realignment beforehand and had no involvement in the decision to realign the lanes.” The report also concluded Christie’s ex-deputy chief of staff, Bridget Ann Kelly, and David Wildstein, a former Port Authority official both “knowingly participated” in the plan to shut the lanes “at least in some part, for some ulterior motive to target Mayor Sokolich.” Christie’s attorneys subsequently told Business Insider the review found there was no written communication showing the governor discussing the closures before they were enacted or while they were in effect.
Weinberg said the committee’s main concern is not necessarily finding evidence Christie was personally involved in the order to close the lanes.
“I know everyone thinks we’re on this road to find a smoking gun on Christie. As far as I’m concerned, there’s been enough spotlight on excesses in the governor’s office,” Weinberg said.
According to Weinberg, both the governor’s own internal review and the committee’s investigation so far have shown there was a “culture” where abuses of power and inappropriate political retaliation were tolerated in both the Port Authority and Christie’s Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs.
Going forward, Weinberg said the Legislature’s committee would focus on determining the motivation for the lane closures and identifying reforms to prevent abuses of power in the future.
“One goal is that we know what happened, but we don’t know why,” Weinberg said of the closures. “The other goal is … how do we prevent these things in the future.”
The Port Authority and the Christie administration have also taken steps to enact reforms in the wake of the scandal. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported the governor’s office said it would dismantle the Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs, which had been led by Kelly. That change was recommended by the internal review, which found staffers at that office were told not to return calls from mayors who were not on good terms with the governor’s office. On Monday a panel of experts met to discuss potential changes at the Port Authority.
Weinberg said the committee had representatives at the Port Authority meeting. In spite of this, she expressed scepticism the agency could lead its own reform effort.
“I’m happy that they’re starting on this road, but I’m not comfortable,” she said. “They’re putting the fox in charge of redesigning the chicken coop.”
The committee, which was established to investigate the so-called “Bridgegate” scandal in January, has issued more than 25 subpoenas so far. Targets have included close aides to Christie, his office, and his campaign organisation.
In addition to the Legislature’s investigation, the lane closures are being investigated by the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, Paul Fishman. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. is also reportedly investigating Port Authority officials’ communications with the Christie administration on a variety of major construction projects. Vance’s office declined to comment on those reports when Business Insider asked about them on April 14.
The Legislature’s investigation hit a roadblock earlier this month when New Jersey Superior Court Judge Mary C. Jacobson ruled Kelly, and Christie’s ex-campaign manager, Bill Stepien, did not have to comply with subpoenas issued to them by committee. Jacobson decided the subpoenas were “overbroad” and might force Stepien and Kelly to incriminate themselves as they are both also potentially being investigated by federal prosecutors. Documents subpoenaed by the Legislature’s transportation committee late last year showed both Kelly and Stepien were involved in discussions about the lane closures before they occurred.
In the past, the committee has not named the targets of its subpoenas until they have been issued. Beyond saying Port Authority officials would be among those subpoenaed, Weinberg declined to say who would receive the upcoming subpoenas or how many would be issued. Weinberg also said the committee would have two more meetings in May to discuss potential next steps.
Another source in the State House said the subpoenas would be issued to people who are not likely to be targeted by the U.S. attorney’s investigation in order to avoid interfering with that probe and facing potential Fifth Amendment challenges like those made by Stepien and Kelly. The source said the committee is hoping testimony and documents obtained from the people targeted by the upcoming subpoenas could shed light on the actions of others, including Kelly and Stepien.
This post was originally published at 3:12 pm.
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