The New Jersey legislative committee investigating lane closures on the George Washington Bridge on Wednesday asked a state court to order two former aides to Gov. Chris Christie to immediately turn over subpoenaed documents that they have refused to produce.
The move sets the stage for a legal showdown that could result in the two ex-aides -- former Christie Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly and former campaign manager Bill Stepien -- being cited for contempt
"Today's court filings are an unfortunate but necessary step to further the committee's work," said Assemblyman John Wisnieski and state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, the Democratic co-chairs of the special panel investigating whether the lane closures were ordered by aides to the Republican governor as political retaliation against Fort Lee's Mayor Mark Sokolich. "The committee remains confident in its legal position. We will now let the judicial process play out."
In recent letters to the committee, lawyers for Kelly and Stepien said their clients would not turn over any emails or documents relating to the bridge traffic jams on the grounds that the subpoenas violated their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and their privacy rights. Their lawyers cited a U.S. Supreme Court case involving Webster Hubbell, a former law partner of Hillary Clinton who pleaded guilty in connection with the Whitewater investigation. The decision, throwing out an indictment of Hubbell for tax evasion, held that there is a constitutional right to withhold material in response to a subpoena if the mere act of producing the material would be incriminating.
But in papers filed in New Jersey Superior Court in Mercer County, lawyers for the committee challenged those claims and argued in separate motions that Kelly and Stepien's attempts to use the Hubbell case were without merit.
"As the person who authored the email stating that it was 'time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,' Ms. Kelly certainly has relevant information about the subject matter of the committee's investigation," they wrote in their motion aimed at Kelly. "The committee was well within its rights to ask Ms. Kelly -- a state employee using state resources to communicate about the official state action of closing access lanes -- to produce any further information she has."
The court filing also rejected Kelly's and Stepien's claims that the subpoena impinged on their Fourth Amendment rights to privacy because they required them r to turn over documents from their personal email accounts.
"Ms. Kelly cannot evade the legitimate demands for the production of business or other non-personal information simply by storing that information in her personal account and then invoking the privilege against self-incrimination," the committee lawyers wrote. Similarly, they wrote about Stepien: "What is at issue here are the communications of a former public official, serving in a very public capacity as the Governor's Campaign Director, and communicating with respect to official state business."
In a related development, the Borough of Fort Lee on Wednesday released more than 2,000 pages of documents that it has turned over to lawyers for Christie in connection with the legislative investigation.
The documents, copies of which were provided to NBC News and other news organizations, include ambulance and fire department response reports during the week-long traffic back-ups in September. They also include a handful of emails from Matt Mowers, a former Christie aide who, after leaving the governor's office to work for his re-election campaign, reportedly unsuccessfully sought to persuade Sokolich, the Fort Lee mayor, to endorse Christie.