In a development that plays right into Chris Christie's hands, the New Jersey legislative panel that tracked the George Washington Bridge scandal into his office and up-ended his 2016 ambitions is running into legal and political headwinds that will slow its ability to get to the bottom of that scandal. Perhaps the world will find the missing Malaysian airliner before it learns the full story behind the closures of those local access lanes at the George Washington Bridge last September.
This week, Judge Mary Jacobson, a respected state court jurist, ruled that the special legislative panel could not compel former Christie staffer Bridget Kelly and his former campaign manager Bill Stepien to produce documents related to its probe. Jacobson slammed the legislative panel’s subpoenas as a “fishing expedition” that violated Kelly and Stepien’s constitutionally protected right against self-incrimination.
State Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who co-chairs the legislative panel, tried to put a brave face on the setback suggesting his colleagues would consult with their lawyers about a possible appeal. “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,” he wrote in a statement.
But Wisniewski’s challenges go well beyond one bad day in court. As any longtime observer of New Jersey politics knows, in addition to your Democrats and Republicans, the state has the “Christiecrats” who are nominal Democrats but have an enduring alliance with Gov. Christie.
As Ryan Lizza chronicles in his latest New Yorker story, the top “Christiecrats” include south Jersey Democratic power broker George Norcross III as well as Democratic Essex County executive Joey DiVincenzo, who actually backed Chrstie’s reelection.
Between Gov. Christie, who holds the nation’s most powerful governorship, and the Christiecrats, the actual Democratic Party is far less powerful than its nominal “control” of both houses of the state Legislature would suggest.
It was this behind-the-scenes axis that helped Gov. Christie achieve his “bipartisan” reforms of the state’s public employee pension system and the state’s teacher tenure rules. Since “Bridgegate” went national, the “Christiecrats” have found themselves in a tough spot but they appear to be part of the Christie efforts at recovering his image.
Democratic Senate president Stephen Sweeney is from southern New Jersey and orbits in Norcross’ sphere of influence. Sweeney, a former ironworker, has had his share of high-profile fights with Christie but has been a critical ally for the governor when it really mattered. He is reported to be considering a run for governor himself.
Two days before Judge Jacobson ruled, Sweeney flip-flopped on the future of the panel that uncovered that smoking gun email from Kelly ordering up traffic problems for Fort Lee at the bridge.
In a Monday meeting with the Star-Ledger editorial board, Sweeney said that if Jacobson ruled against the committee the panel would “really need to walk away.” Sweeney’s remedy was to cede further inquiry to U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, who has already convened a grand jury.
A Star-Ledger editorial titled “Cease-Fire On Bridgegate?” goes on to quote Sweeney as saying that once the panel lost the round in court the Legislature could say, “We would have done all we could have done.”
By the end of the same day that Sweeney sat down with the Star-Ledger, he backtracked. In a damage control statement, Sweeney acknowledged the legislative panel had its own mission “separate” from that of federal prosecutors to determine the facts surrounding Bridgegate and the “abuse of power” it represented.
“The fact that a grand jury has been convened demonstrates the seriousness of the issue and reinforces the need for the legislative panel to figure out what happened and to implement reforms,” Sweeney wrote. A spokesman for Sweeney said he would not be available to comment beyond the statement he put out.
The day after Sweeney’s gyrations, the legislative panel that is made up of members of both the Assembly and Senate, had a fractious meeting where Republicans wanted to see the panel back off what they contend is a partisan exercise.
“To suggest that the U.S. attorney’s work will suffice is to deliberately ignore the strictly criminal focus of the U.S. attorney’s probe and the limited public disclosure that goes along with it,” Wisniewski shot back in a press conference after his panel met. “This committee and state still does not have a clear understanding of how this happened and there are still people we can question and documents we can gather to review and enhance our understanding.”
Wisniewski is now narrowing his sights on getting the list of people interviewed by Randy Mastro, whose law firm issued the 345-page report commissioned by Gov. Christie that cleared him of any wrongdoing.
Mastro’s office says he is traveling.
Wisniewski told reporters that there are ongoing negotiations with Mastro about getting committee access to the “underpinnings” of Mastro’s publicly funded internal reviews.
But after Jacobson’s ruling it is not clear just how much clout his panel has to compel cooperation. And if fact finding is left up entirely to appropriately tight-lipped federal prosecutors, the public may never get a full airing of what may have been egregiously unethical behavior that did not cross the line into criminality.
Meanwhile, Gov. Christie held his 118th town hall in Fairfield, a Republican town in staunchly Democratic Essex County. Well over 500 mostly Christie fans packed the Winston Churchill Elementary School.
Outside there were a handful of “Bridgegate” protesters wearing orange traffic cones on their heads. “We are out here to say enough is enough with Gov. Christie, his pattern of being a bully and not addressing issues of the community,” said Arnold Kortokin, a sociology adjunct professor at Montclair University.
Inside, the Christie advance man gave the excited crowd what he called “the flow of show”; the governor would give opening remarks and then he would take questions.
In the front row was a cheerful Essex County executive Joseph DiVincenzo, one of the state’s top Christiecrats, whose presence Christie noted for the crowd.
After the event I asked DiVincenzo about quotes attributed to him in the New Yorker story where he expressed envy for George Norcross’ reported ability to control the Democratic votes of seven of the state's 40 state senators and 12 of the state’s 80 Assembly members.
“Nobody can control anybody. It was a miscommunication. Nobody controls anybody,” DiVincenzo insisted. When asked about his status as a Christiecrat, he says he has no regrets about crossing party lines to back the governor’s reelection. Christie's defense proceeds as planned.