TRENTON, N.J. – A key figure in a political payback investigation involving Gov. Chris Christie’s administration voluntarily came to court to watch lawyers argue over whether her subpoena from a legislative investigatory panel should be quashed.
A lawyer said Bridget Kelly, the former Christie aide at the centre of a plot to block traffic near the George Washington Bridge, wanted to show she’s not hiding from the scandal.
“She’s not someone who’s running away and living the life of a hermit,” lawyer Michael Critchley said outside the Mercer County courthouse Tuesday after the nearly three-hour proceeding.
Kelly, who had not appeared in public since Christie fired her in early January, was rushed by reporters and camera crews as she arrived and left the courthouse. She did not comment. The jobless and divorced mother of four appeared near tears as Critchley described how her life had been upended by the case.
Bill Stepien, the other ex-Christie loyalist fighting a subpoena, was not in court.
Lawyers for Kelly and Stepien said their clients risk self-incrimination if they comply with the subpoenas for documents related to the traffic jams.
The lawyers partially based their Fifth Amendment claims on a parallel criminal investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office, which is seeking to uncover whether federal laws were broken. The legislative panel, which lacks authority to prosecute, wants to find out how high up Christie’s chain of command the lane-closing scheme went and why it was hatched.
A lawyer for the legislative panel investigating the plot countered that the law does not entitle them to the blanket protection they seek. Rather, any documents deemed potentially incriminating by Kelly and Stepien should be argued on a case-by-case basis, the lawyer said.
Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson isn’t expected to rule before the end of the month.
She also raised the prospect of the committee granting immunity to Kelly and Stepien in exchange for the documents.
Legislative lawyer Reid Schar said he was uncertain whether the legislative panel had the authority to grant immunity, while Critchley claimed the panel chose not to exercise that option because it would interfere with the U.S. attorney’s investigation.
Christie, whose viability as a 2016 Republican presidential candidate has been called into question since the scandal erupted, has said he knew nothing of the plot’s planning or execution. He said in December that no one on his staff was involved, a statement he was forced to retract in January when private emails, including the one from Kelly, showed otherwise.
Christie announced he had dismissed Kelly and called her behaviour “stupid” after it was revealed she set the traffic plot in motion with an email saying, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
The lane closings occurred some three weeks later in September, causing hours-long backups in Fort Lee, apparently to retaliate against the Democratic mayor of the town at the base of the heavily travelled span connecting New Jersey and New York City.
The governor also cut ties with Stepien, who was a consultant for the Republican Governors Association at the time the scandal broke and was set to become the state GOP chairman.
Some 32 people or organizations close to the governor, including his re-election campaign and Republican State Committee, have been subpoenaed. All but Kelly and Stepien have complied or are in the process of producing documents.
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