TRENTON, N.J. -- A new investigative committee was preparing subpoenas Thursday for 17 individuals and three organizations as it launched a deeper look into how many employees or appointees of Gov. Chris Christie were involved in ordering lane closures that caused a massive September traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge.
The names on the list weren't immediately released, but they were expected to include Bridget Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff, who weeks before the closures sent an email to a close ally of the governor on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the regional agency that controls the bridge. "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," it said.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat and chairman of the new committee, has said he has doubts that Kelly came up with the idea on her own.
"I am surprised as anybody that we are at this point," said Wisniewski, adding that when the Assembly's investigation into the closures began he had no idea the trail would lead to Christie's office. "We're going to follow the facts wherever they may lead us."
Before the Assembly vote Wisniewski said he expected to issue subpoenas for records and testimony, but he said he wouldn't release the names until the recipients had been served.
Wisniewski and his transportation committee began looking into spending and operations at the Port Authority a year ago. The committee turned to the lane closures last fall, and eventually received emails showing Christie's allies ordering the lane closures and expressing glee about the epic traffic problems that they caused in Fort Lee, the New Jersey town nearest to the bridge.
The town's mayor, who didn't endorse Christie's November reelection, has said he suspects it was all about political payback. The Republican governor endorsed that view last week in a marathon news conference.
Reid Schar, a former assistant U.S. attorney who served as lead prosecutor on the corruption case involving then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, has been hired to serve as special counsel to the new Assembly Select Committee on Investigations, formed to deal with the expanded probe.
The committee, with eight Democrats and four Republicans, was set by a unanimous vote, but the bipartisan spirit didn't last long, as Republicans groused about the hiring of the counsel, the potential cost and the panel's open-ended mission to investigate any "abuse of government power" or an attempt to cover one up.
"The resolution just says 'abuse of power,' " said Jon Bramnick, the Assembly minority leader. "Will Republicans be able to subpoena people they think have abused power in this building?"
Democratic Assembly Majority Leader Louis D. Greenwald put the focus on Christie's office.
"The people's trust has been broken," he said.
Christie was facing investigations on multiple fronts: Besides the Assembly probe, the New Jersey Senate is setting up its own committee, and the U.S. attorney's office — which Christie once headed — has begun a preliminary inquiry. In Congress, a Senate panel said the Port Authority had come up with "zero evidence" to support the claim by Christie appointees that the lane changes were about a traffic study.
Christie's office announced Thursday morning that it had hired a law firm to assist with an internal review of his administration. "This administration is committed to ensuring that what happened here never happens again," Christie's office said in a release.
Christie, meanwhile, met Thursday with New Jerseyans victimized by the 2012 superstorm Sandy, touting the release of $817 million in federal relief funds. The speech at a fire station in the coastal community of Manahawkin had been postponed after the George Washington Bridge scandal mushroomed last week.
"I suspect there are a few more cameras here today than we might have originally thought for a Sandy event in Manahawkin, New Jersey, but I hope all these people with cameras will frequent the local businesses," he said, to applause. The governor also said that, despite the pull of the investigations, "nothing will distract me" from continued recovery from the storm.