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.
First published February 19 2014, 4:09 PM
Michael Isikoff joined NBC News in July 2010 as national investigative correspondent. Previously he had been at Newsweek since 1994 as an investigative correspondent. He has written extensively on the U.S. government's war on terrorism, the Abu Ghraib scandal, campaign-finance and congressional ethics abuses, presidential politics and other national issues. At Newsweek.com his blog "DeClassified - Investigative Reporting in Real Time," written with Mark Hosenball, become a must-read for senior U.S. officials. Their previous web column, "Terror Watch," also written for Newsweek.com, won the 2005 Society of Professional Journalists award for best investigative reporting online.
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Isikoff is the author of two New York Times best-selling books: "Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War," co-written with David Corn, and "Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter's Story," which chronicled his reporting of the Monica Lewinsky story.
Since the terror attacks of 9/11, Isikoff has broken repeated stories about the U.S. government's war on terror and won numerous journalism awards. Isikoff's June 2002 Newsweek cover story on U.S. intelligence failures that preceded the 9/11 terror attacks, along with a series of related articles, was honored with the Investigative Reporters and Editors top prize for investigative reporting in magazine journalism. He was honored, along with a team of Newsweek reporters, by the Society of Professional Journalists for coverage of the Abu Ghraib scandal. Isikoff was also part of a reporting team that earned Newsweek the National Magazine Award for General Excellence in 2002, for its coverage of the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Isikoff's exclusive reporting on the Monica Lewinsky scandal gained him national attention in 1998 and his coverage of the events that lead to President Bill Clinton's impeachment earned Newsweek the prestigious National Magazine Award in the Reporting category in 1999. Isikoff's Lewinsky reporting also won the National Headliner Award, the Edgar A. Poe Award presented by the White House Correspondents Association and the Gerald R. Ford Journalism Prize for Reporting on the Presidency.
Isikoff came to Newsweek from The Washington Post, where he had been a reporter since September 1981. Isikoff graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a B.A. in 1974 and received a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in 1976.