NJ Democrats combine traffic jam probes

TRENTON, N.J. — Separate legislative investigations into allegations that Gov. Chris Christie’s aides manufactured traffic jams as political payback were merged into a single probe Monday by the New Jersey Legislature.

The state Assembly and Senate voted to establish a joint bipartisan committee with power to subpoena people and correspondence related to the traffic scandal and other matters. The two chambers had been conducting parallel investigations into claims involving the Republican governor’s aides.

Chicago lawyer Reid Schar will serve as special counsel to the panel of eight Democrats and four Republicans.

Co-chairs of the committee say the focus is on finding out who ordered the blocking of two lanes of traffic near the George Washington Bridge, leading to hours-long delays in the town of Fort Lee, at the base of the span.

The resolution to merge the legislative investigations passed the Democrat-led Legislature unanimously, though Republicans pressed for input before future subpoenas are issued and for equal access to documents. Twenty subpoenas issued by the Assembly panel remain pending and are due back next week.

Those reach deep into the governor’s office, the re-election effort and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency that runs the George Washington Bridge, which the traffic lanes lead to.

The resolution cites the gravity of the issues exposed in the traffic scandal and says that makes it “fitting for the Legislature through an appropriate committee to further investigate all aspects of the finances, operations, and management of the Port Authority and any other matter raising concerns about abuse of government power or an attempt to conceal an abuse of government power.”

The U.S. attorney’s office stepped up a criminal investigation of the matter with subpoenas to the Christie for Governor re-election campaign and the state GOP, and probably others last week.

No subpoenas target Christie himself, a possible 2016 presidential candidate who has just begun a yearlong chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association. The governor has said he was not involved in the planning or execution of the scheme, which appears to have been authorized by his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, and carried out by his No. 2 man at the bridge agency, David Wildstein.

Kelly has been fired and Wildstein resigned.

Two other Christie confidantes also were let go: His top deputy at the Port Authority, Bill Baroni, resigned after telling a legislative panel the lane closings were for a traffic pattern study, and two-time campaign manager Bill Stepien was told to step aside after he appeared to gloat over the traffic chaos in private emails released during the investigation.

Christie, who has a reputation for engendering loyalty and insisting on discipline among his subordinates, explained at a December news conference that he learned of his aides’ involvement when the subpoenaed emails were published.

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