Two former aides to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie don't have to turn over their emails and other documents, a New Jersey judge ruled Wednesday, dealing a serious setback to a state legislative committee's effort to answer the questions surrounding September's deliberate traffic jam at the George Washington Bridge.
Bridget Anne Kelly, the former deputy chief of staff who seemed to sign off on the bridge plan, and former Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien, once one of the governor's closest political advisors, are in the sights of an FBI investigation into the bridge closures -- and thus shielded by the Fifth Amendment from having to turn over potentially incriminating evidence, Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson ruled.
Emails show that Kelly may have known about the plan to close off the bridge, possibly as an act of political retaliation aimed at the mayor of Fort Lee, whose town was paralyzed by traffic for four days.
The case ballooned into a national scandal in January when the state committee released documents that included an email exchange between Kelly and former aide David Wildstein: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," she wrote. "Got it," Wildstein replied.
Christie fired Kelly and dumped Stepien from his job as consultant to the Republican Governor's Assn., an organization led by Christie that served as an important stepping stone for a possible run for president in 2016.
But the evidence that's come out so far -- including the 360-page report that absolved the governor of wrongdoing by Gibson Dunn and Crutcher, a Christie-hired law firm -- still doesn't begin to explain why Kelly and Wildstein, a former high school classmate of Christie's who carried out the lane closures, were so fixated on punishing Democratic Mayor Mark Sokolich or whether there was another motive entirely. (Sokolich had declined to endorse Christie in the months before the governor's November reelection, but considered himself a friend of the administration.)
And so far, no evidence has surfaced that disputes Christie's assertions that he and other officials in his administration knew nothing about the scheme in advance. Wildstein has said he told Christie about the lane closures while they were happening, during a Sept. 11 ceremony in Manhattan, but Christie says he doesn't remember the conversation.
The committee has issued dozens of subpoenas for documents related to the lane closures, trying to piece together what came before that exchange. But Jacobson agreed with lawyers for Kelly and Stepien that they can't be made to turn over those records without immunity. But granting them immunity might interfere with the federal investigation.
Kevin Marino, Stepien's lawyer, said the ruling represented a "complete vindication" and that the committee's efforts to enforce its subpoena "wasted the taxpayers' money and the nation's time."
"In its zeal to achieve a blatantly political goal having nothing to do with Mr. Stepien, the committee disregarded the fundamental constitutional rights of this innocent man," Marino said in a statement.
The inquiries are nowhere near over, though. Wildstein, a Christie appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the area's bridges, reportedly met for hours last week with federal prosecutors in Newark, according to Main Justice, a blog that covers the Justice Department. [Updated at 4:35 p.m. PST April 9: That report was disputed by a law enforcement source familiar with the case who was not cleared to speak publicly.]
A grand jury also is reportedly hearing testimony from witnesses.
Democratic state Assemblyman John Wisniewski, co-chairman of the committee, said the committee wasn't shutting down its operations either. This week, the committee agreed to ask for notes of all interviews conducted by the law firm hired by Christie. Unless the records are turned over by the end of the week, the committee will try to get them via subpoena.
"The committee felt it was very much in the public interest to seek to compel the production of these documents, but as we've said before, there's more than one method to gather information in an investigation, and we will consider alternatives," Wisniewski said in a statement.
Christie, meanwhile, has attempted to put the bridge story behind him and regain his national reputation as a GOP star, but a recent poll of New Jersey voters suggests that won't be easy. Just 11% of New Jersey voters agree with the conclusions of the Gibson Dunn report, which said Kelly and Wildstein were solely to blame for the bridge plan, according to the Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press poll released last week.
By a 9-point margin -- 47% to 38% -- New Jerseyans still believe that Christie was directly involved in the decision to close off the lanes, the poll said.