Explanation for lane closures a focus of new subpoenas

Posted: February 14, 2014

TRENTON - A new round of subpoenas indicates that the legislative panel investigating the George Washington Bridge lane closures is homing in on testimony by a former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey official who told lawmakers that the September closures that led to gridlock were part of a traffic study.

Bill Baroni's account was disputed by another top Port Authority official.

Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), cochair of the special committee, said in an interview Wednesday that Baroni's testimony appeared to be part of a "robust effort to offer an alternate set of facts, apparently an effort to cover up what had happened."

The 19 subpoenas, made public by the committee Wednesday evening, primarily were served on members of Gov. Christie's administration and officials at the Port Authority.

A number of Christie staffers, as well as the governor's office and reelection campaign organization, were issued subpoenas seeking any records or correspondence related to the testimony of Baroni, a Christie appointee who resigned from the agency in December.

Requested documents include any drafts of or edits to the November testimony, which has been disputed by the Port Authority's executive director, an appointee of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Wisniewski said "it's clear through material the committee has already received that one or more individuals marked up, commented, and made notes on drafts of that testimony. It would certainly be instructive to the committee to understand more about who contributed those notes and comments to help understand the scope of the effort to conceal what had happened."

His panel is also seeking records of meetings between Baroni, Christie staffers, and Phillip Kwon, deputy general counsel at the Port Authority.

Kwon - a Christie nominee to the state Supreme Court who was blocked by legislative Democrats - advised Baroni before his testimony, according to a Wall Street Journal report. A Port Authority spokesman told the Journal this month that Kwon performed a "routine function" in advising Baroni.

Two of the 19 subpoenas were issued to the Port Authority; the rest went to separate recipients, some of whom were previously subpoenaed. The responses to the latest subpoenas are due Feb. 24.

Responses to the first round of subpoenas were due this month, though lawmakers granted numerous extensions.

Federal prosecutors also are probing the matter and have issued subpoenas to at least the governor's office and his campaign organization.

Two recipients of the legislative subpoenas - former Christie aide Bridget Anne Kelly, who sent an e-mail calling for "traffic problems in Fort Lee," and political adviser Bill Stepien - have refused to turn over documents, invoking their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The committee voted this week to compel them to comply.

Other information requested in the subpoenas include records from the governor's office and reelection campaign of correspondence regarding Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee.

Some have alleged the lane closures, which created massive backups in the Bergen County borough the week of Sept. 9, were retribution against Sokolich for not endorsing the Republican governor.

One subpoena, served on the State Police aviation unit, seeks records of all helicopter flights between Aug. 15, 2013, and Sept. 30, 2013, carrying any state officials or employees, or Port Authority officials or employees.

The panel wants to learn who flew with the governor around the time of the lane closures, according to a person close to the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity. This week, the state police said the governor did not fly over the bridge or Fort Lee while the lanes were closed, including a flight Christie took on Sept. 11.

The committee is also seeking correspondence between the Port Authority and Christie about the agency's August 2011 toll increases and the scuttled rail tunnel project that would have linked New Jersey to New York City.

Before lanes were closed at the bridge, the Assembly Transportation Committee was already investigating those issues.

Christie killed the "Access to the Region's Core" project in 2010, citing cost concerns. A 2012 Government Accountability Office report found that the governor overstated the cost estimates.

The committee hopes to learn whether Christie had a different rationale for canceling the project, another person familiar with the matter said.

Democrats suspect Christie killed the project to ensure that there would not be a shortfall in the Transportation Trust Fund, which he had pledged to replenish without raising the state gas tax.

The American Automobile Association has sued the Port Authority over the toll hikes, saying it believes the revenue is being used illegally to fund construction of the new World Trade Center and not transportation-related projects.

The person familiar with the investigation into the Fort Lee lane closures said this new request for documents was not necessarily related to the bridge tie-ups. Rather, the committee is following up on the Transportation Committee's initial queries.


mhanna@phillynews.com

609-989-8990 @maddiehanna

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