Panel May Need Judge to Settle GWB Standoff

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -

New Jersey lawmakers investigating a political payback scandal ensnaring Gov. Chris Christie’s administration may need to get a judge to force two key figures to turn over subpoenaed documents.

Christie’s two-time campaign manager and a deputy chief of staff have refused to turn over text messages, emails, personal calendars and other documents related to a traffic-blocking operation near the George Washington Bridge that caused massive backups, apparently for political retribution. Their lawyers have asked that the subpoenas be withdrawn.

The legislative panel’s lawyer, Reid Schar, is reviewing options to enforce the subpoenas. Committee co-chairs Loretta Weinberg and John Wisniewski, both Democrats, said Wednesday no decision had been made on how to proceed.

“We feel we have valid reasons for issuing the subpoenas and they have an obligation to comply,” said Wisniewski.

Legal experts say the lawmakers may have to ask a judge to settle the dispute.

George Thomas, who teaches criminal law at Rutgers University law school in Newark, said lawyers for the political operative Bill Stepien and fired Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly have made “plausible” claims to protect the documents.

But Morton Rosenberg, a retired legal scholar who wrote a paper on congressional subpoenas, said it’s difficult to get a subpoena thrown out so long as there is “some credible grounds and the jurisdiction of the legislative committee is appropriate.”

It may not get that far. The U.S. attorney’s office could step in at any time if it feels its own grand jury investigation into the lane closings is being impeded. So far, the parallel probes have been moving forward cooperatively.

The legislative panel could rewrite the subpoenas before a judge gets to decide, Thomas said. Or, it could hold Stepien and Kelly in contempt of the Legislature and refer charges to a prosecutor.

Separate claims made by Stepien lawyer Kevin Marino and Kelly lawyer Michael Critchley ask that the subpoenas be withdrawn on grounds that they violate their clients’ Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights.

The Fifth Amendment protects against compelled self-incrimination. While it generally applies to testimony, legal experts say the privilege can be extended to written and electronic records if complying could lead to a requirement to testify. The Fourth Amendment protects against overly broad subpoenas.