(Update 2/13/14: MSNBC reported last night that the Christie administration rejrects Senator Robert Gordon’s contention that the Governor’s office has a policy banning its staff from testifying before legislative committees. “There is no policy in the Christie administration preventing the governor’s staff from testying before the legislature. Contacted by MSNBC, Senator Gordon says he stands by his earlier statements.)
In an announcement that could set the stage for a constitutional showdown, the Christie administration informed Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen), chairman of the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee, that it is Christie administration policy that no members of the governor’s office are allowed to appear before legislative committees.
“This is a Christie administration policy. There was no such policy before this in previous administrations,” Gordon said yesterday on the eve of his committee hearing focusing on the months of delays by the Department of Community Affairs in getting $600 million in Sandy aid out to homeowners. “This is a huge disadvantage for our inquiry when so many of the decisions are made in the governor’s office.”
It would be an even larger disadvantage for the Joint Legislative Select Committee on Investigation that is probing the Bridgegate scandal, considering that 10 subpoenas issued by the panel — including three new subpoenas issued yesterday — went to current members of the governor’s office and two to former governor’s aides who have since been fired or resigned.
The committee cochairs, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), announced after yesterday’s meeting that another dozen subpoenas were going out. That includes one to the custodian of records for the Governor’s Aviation Unit requesting Gov. Chris Christie’s helicopter flight plans to see if he flew over the Fort Lee traffic jam on his return from the World Trade Center site on September 11, 2012, the third day of the George Washington Bridge lane closures, as first reported by the New York Post. Democrats would like to know if Christie flew over Fort Lee with David Wildstein, Christie’s political enforcer at the Port Authority who ordered the secret lane closures.
A list of 12 new subpoenas issued by the committee yesterday, obtained by NJ Spotlight partner WNYC, shows that in addition to the subpoena to the governor’s aviation unit, three new subpoenas were issued to staffers in the governor’s office: Rosemary Iannacone, director of operations; Jeanne Ashmore, director of constituent relations; and Barbara Panebianco, executive assistant to Bridget Kelly. It was Kelly, Christie’s since-fired deputy chief of staff, who signaled Wildstein to order the lane closures in her now-infamous “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email.
The remaining eight subpoenas went to Port Authority officials, most notably William “Pat” Schuber, the Port Authority board member and former GOP Bergen County Executive whom Weinberg has criticized for failing to provide information to her about Bridgegate last fall. Also subpoenaed was Philip Kwon, the Port Authority deputy counsel who reportedly spent four or five days briefing Bill Baroni, the Port Authority deputy executive director, prior to his November appearance before the Assembly Transportation Committee. At that time, Baroni insisted that the lane closures were part of a legitimate traffic study. Subpoenas were also issued to two Baroni assistants, Matthew Bell and Gretchen DeMarco, and Wildstein special assistant Annelle Schwarz.
The committee yesterday voted to reject the contention of Kelly and Bill Stepien, whom Christie fired as his campaign strategist, that their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure protected them against turning over documents, emails, and other materials subpoenaed by the committee.
The committee resolutions were approved along party lines, with the eight Democrats voting in favor and the four Republicans abstaining. Weinberg said the GOP committee members raised no objections to the resolutions on constitutional grounds, and Wisniewski said the cochairs would meet with the committee’s special counsel, Reid Schar, to decide how to proceed if Stepien and Kelly continued to refuse to produce the subpoenaed documents.
Kevin Marino, Stepien’s attorney, issued a statement reiterating his client’s refusal to cooperate with the committee in the face of a parallel investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“We have provided the Committee with a detailed explanation of our constitutional and common law objections to the subpoena,” Marino said. “If the Committee asks a court to enforce that subpoena despite its legal infirmities, we will bring those objections to the court’s attention.”
NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.