Update 5:37 p.m. ET, 1/9/2014
(CNN) – One of the central figures in New Jersey’s George Washington Bridge controversy was charged with contempt by the New Jersey State Assembly on Thursday for refusing to answer questions posed by the committee investigating the scandal.
David Wildstein, former director of interstate capital projects for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent during an appearance before the panel tasked with investigating the bridge access lane closures. Earlier Thursday, a judge compelled Wildstein to appear before the committee in response to its subpoena.
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Emails released Wednesday appear to reveal an exchange between Wildstein and a senior aide to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in which the two decided to close portions of the bridge for political retribution. Due to the threat of criminal investigation, Wildstein’s lawyer Alan Zegas recommended that his client remain silent.
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"He has the right under both the federal and state constitutions to not give answers that could be used by a prosecutor, were they to charge him, even if they were to charge him wrongly,” said Zegas, who sat next to the former official throughout the panel’s questioning. “So if his answer could furnish an element of proof in a prosecutor’s case, then a person in the position of Mr. Wildstein does not have an obligation to answer."
The panel’s chairman, State Assemblyman John Wisniewski, disagreed with Zegas’ reasoning. Reading aloud from a portion of the New Jersey State Code of Fair Procedure, Wisniewski argued that Wildstein’s answers could not be used against him in any potential trial in the future, and warned that refusing to answer the committee’s questions would place Wildstein in contempt.
“I don’t believe that the legislative immunity would sufficiently protect Mr. Wildstein,” Zegas responded.
After first taking a vote of the panel to determine if the questions posed were “proper and pertinent to the inquiry,” as the law requires, the committee voted to hold Wildstein in contempt, which is a misdemeanor in New Jersey. A spokesman for the committee confirmed that the charge will now be referred to a county prosecutor.
New Jersey Republican Rep. Leonard Lance, who was previously the minority leader in the state Senate, said he thought the legislative investigators in the Assembly could give Wildstein "use immunity" that would allow them to get to the underlying facts about the bridge.
Lance, described "use immunity" as "only for what he says not for facts developed outside of what he said." He said everybody is entitled to the Fifth amendment protection, but a way around that is through this type of immunity.
Lance described himself as one of Christie's "strongest supporters" on the Hill. He told CNN he watched every minute of Christie's news conference and praised the governor for taking "decisive action today."
He waved off any idea that this episode would have any impact on Christie's presidential ambitions because 'he has taken decisive and immediate action."
Lance hasn't spoken to Christie in recent days, but last saw him at a private event on New Year's Eve.
CNN Senior Congressional Producer Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.