Judge: Two in N.J. bridge scandal don’t have to comply with subpoenas
April 9th, 2014
05:16 PM ET
5 months ago

Judge: Two in N.J. bridge scandal don’t have to comply with subpoenas

(CNN) – Two key figures caught up in the George Washington Bridge traffic controversy that has upended the administration of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will not have to hand over information sought by a state legislative committee investigating the matter.

Mercer County Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson on Wednesday dismissed the panel’s complaints that Bill Stepien and Bridget Kelly had not complied with requests for documents, citing their constitutional right against self-incrimination.

Kelly, a former Christie deputy chief of staff, and Stepien, the governor's former campaign manager, were fighting requests to turn over texts, emails and other documents related to its probe.

The scandal involves suggestions Christie appointees abused their authority by orchestrating traffic jams at the foot of the nation's busiest bridge in Fort Lee last September in a scheme that may have been politically motivated.

The saga has called into question Christie's forceful governing style and clouded prospects for a potential Republican presidential candidacy in 2016.

Lawyers for Kelly and Stepien argued their clients' innocence and contended that turning over documents would infringe on their rights to remain silent, which they previously invoked.

Kelly has emerged as a central figure in the traffic mess, while Stepien's name surfaced less prominently around the scandal.

Neither has been charged with any wrongdoing.

The requests for information were limited to traffic jams caused by closure of two bridge access lanes, he said.

Stepien's lawyer, Kevin Marino, said the decision "represents a complete vindication" of his client. "In its zeal to achieve a blatantly political goal having nothing to do with Mr. Stepien, the committee disregarded the fundamental constitutional rights of this innocent man."

Assemblyman John Wisniewski, Democratic co-chair of the investigative committee, said it will consult with its counsel and consider its options.

"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, and we will consider alternatives," he said in a statement. "We will continue exploring every avenue to find out what happened with this threat to public safety and abuse of government power."

Reid Schar, special counsel for the panel, had told the judge that its subpoenas were narrow and should be followed. The requests for information were limited to traffic jams caused by closure of two bridge access lanes, he said.

Kelly's lawyer, Michael Critchley, said the court’s decision "provides a free tutorial on the protections the Fifth Amendment affords all citizens."

"The decision is thorough and well-reasoned and is a complete rejection of the committee's attempt to strip Ms. Kelly of her constitutional rights," he said in a statement.

Stepien's lawyer, Kevin Marino, said the decision "represents a complete vindication" of his client.

"In its zeal to achieve a blatantly political goal having nothing to do with Mr. Stepien, the committee disregarded the fundamental constitutional rights of this innocent man."

Other figures in the scandal have complied with the committee's request for information.

The U.S. Attorney's office is also investigating the matter.

Christie has said he only found out about the traffic jams after they occurred, and knew nothing about possible political mischief by his associates.

An internal review of the lane closures by outside lawyers hired by Christie's office cleared him of any wrongdoing. But critics are skeptical that that investigation was not thorough enough.

CNN's Ashley Killough, Shimon Prokupecz, Steve Kastenbaum and Chris Frates contributed to this report.


Filed under: Chris Christie • New Jersey
soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. timverba

    The subpoenas were seeking texts, emails and other documents. If they are texts within the state communications system, I do not know why they cannot pull such records directly from the State? If they are personal documents are they considered personal notes? Why would these documents be treated any differently than a house search of a business proprietor for documents related to company records?

    April 9, 2014 05:36 pm at 5:36 pm |
  2. Sniffit

    Duh. They exercised the 5th. I'm pretty sure this was an expected ruling. DOJ will do their thing and we'll see where that goes. Wildstein is cooperating with them at this point apparently, which doesn't really bode well for Kelly, Stepian or Christie.

    This doesn't mean the NJ legislature should stop though. They have a duty to figure out as much as they can about what went on and try to fix things to prevent this kind of abuse from happening in the future...whoever was involved.

    April 9, 2014 05:41 pm at 5:41 pm |
  3. Sniffit

    " Kevin Marino, said the decision “represents a complete vindication” of his client"

    Then he's not a very good lawyer, but is a very good spinner/PR bobblehead. Just like you can't infer guilt from someone claiming the 5th, you can't infer their innocence from a judge upholding their right to have done so. The nonsense this Marino guy spewed is a carefully crafted lie to get the soundbite out there that his client was "completely vindicated" because he knows full well that places like CNN are just going to broadcast it for him without doing any explaining about how very very wrong what he said was.

    "the committee disregarded the fundamental constitutional rights of this innocent man.”"

    No they didn't. They subpoenaed him, he claimed the 5th and they asked a judge to determine which side should get what they want with respect to the subpoena. There's no violation or disregard of his rights in that. In fact, the rights of everyone involved were respected...his right to claim the 5th and the legislature's right to petition the judicial branch for a determination on their subpoena. Just because they lost doesn't mean Stepien's rights were somehow violated. He could have just as easily not claimed the 5th and obeyed the subpoena for all they knew. And he didn't. That's fine...it was his choice which way to play it.

    April 9, 2014 05:47 pm at 5:47 pm |
  4. Sniffit

    "If they are texts within the state communications system, I do not know why they cannot pull such records directly from the State?"

    There may have been docs like that which were scrubbed from the system. When you're doing investigation/discovery, you cover all bases. They can still get the documents if they can obtain them through other means...this ruling doesn't prevent that. The 5th only comes into play because these people were being asked to turn over potentially self-incriminating documents themselves. It was the act of having to do it to themselves that mattered here. If DOJ turns up all the emails and other docs with a forensic computer expert or whatever, and they turn out to be incriminating, then these people are hosed.

    As for a "house search of a business proprietor for documents related to company records" that would be perfectly legal and legit. Sending him a subpoena that covers anything he has at home would be fine. If he claimed the 5th, you'd have to go to a judge for a determination of whether his exercise of the 5th is legit.

    April 9, 2014 05:53 pm at 5:53 pm |
  5. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    Mercer County Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson on Wednesday dismissed the panel’s complaints
    -------------------------------------------------
    I can't help but wonder if the good Gov. had anything at all to do with this judge's appointment ot the bench.
    I'm probably being overly cynical but we are talking about New Jersey and Christie here.

    April 9, 2014 05:55 pm at 5:55 pm |
  6. Thomas

    Bill Stepien and Bridget Kelly are both guilty of criminal intent and obstruction of justice .

    The will get there payment in the mail !

    April 9, 2014 06:08 pm at 6:08 pm |
  7. Marie MD

    The more they hide the more guilty husband bigness looks.

    April 9, 2014 06:24 pm at 6:24 pm |
  8. Marie MD

    Husband should read his NOT husband.

    April 9, 2014 06:25 pm at 6:25 pm |
  9. steve

    guilty as charged!

    April 9, 2014 09:18 pm at 9:18 pm |
  10. Jeff Brown in Jersey

    If Christie were innocent of all this, he would come clean and put this stuff behind him, and comply before campaign season. This dog and pony show will continue for months to come, further tarnishing his "stellar" reputation. Sorry GOP, your golden boy isn't so golden.

    April 9, 2014 09:54 pm at 9:54 pm |
  11. smith

    Kersey politics at its best. The fat boy could skate on this.

    April 9, 2014 10:51 pm at 10:51 pm |
  12. S. B. Stein

    The ruling was wrong and will cause everything to take longer. I don't think that there is anything that they have would be that incriminating. They should be talking to the legislative committee and the US Attorney to get some sort of deal.

    April 9, 2014 11:01 pm at 11:01 pm |
  13. J.V.Hodgson

    These documents are related to those only in relation to their work. They don't own that the government does they got paid for writing on behalf of we the people in NJ etc., these are not attorney client work product and if they did something illegal the law is clear ignorance of the law is no excuse.
    since these are government documents how about an application for them under the freedom of information act!?
    Regards,
    Hodgson

    April 10, 2014 03:08 am at 3:08 am |