No bills yet from Christie's bridge traffic lawyers

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney gave mixed signals on his support for the legislative investigation into the lane closures on the bridge.
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney gave mixed signals on his support for the legislative investigation into the lane closures on the bridge. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 10, 2014

TRENTON - New Jersey's top law enforcement official couldn't say Tuesday how much state taxpayers are paying in legal bills to investigate September's lane closures at the George Washington Bridge. He hasn't received any bills from the law firm retained by Gov. Christie's office.

At the same time, legislators are requesting transcripts or other documents from dozens of interviews the firm conducted to formulate a report released this month that absolved Christie and his current staff of any responsibility for the traffic jams.

If the governor's office does not comply with the request by Friday, the legislative investigatory panel will issue a subpoena demanding the documents, its chairman said.

Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher's report placed the blame for the lane closures on two former Christie allies, who it said had ulterior motives possibly related to the mayor of Fort Lee, Bergen County.

Gibson Dunn did not interview those individuals - Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff, and David Wildstein, a former Christie official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey - or a handful of other key players.

Acting Attorney General John Hoffman told a Senate panel Tuesday that his office had not set a cap on Gibson Dunn's fees, to be paid by taxpayers. The firm is charging $650 an hour to represent the governor's office in federal and legislative investigations - a rate only "slightly higher" than what a first-year associate at the firm bills, he said.

Hoffman said the lag in receiving a bill from the firm was "not uncommon." Gibson Dunn also has represented New Jersey in its defense of a law legalizing sports betting. The state experienced "a fairly significant delay" before receiving an initial bill in that case, he said; Gibson Dunn has so far charged $3 million.

The firm hired by the Legislature to conduct its investigation has charged about $240,000 thus far, also to be paid by taxpayers.

Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), cochair of the investigatory committee, said Tuesday that the panel had asked Gibson Dunn for additional documents related to 70 people.

Wisniewski, speaking at a news conference after the committee's first meeting since February, said the panel's outside counsel had asked Gibson Dunn to provide interview transcripts or summaries, as well as documents obtained from Christie's personal communications.

If Gibson Dunn does not comply by Friday, Wisniewski said, the panel would subpoena the documents.

Since the special investigatory committee formed in January, it has issued 28 subpoenas and received all requested documents except for those from a handful of individuals, Wisniewski said. Kelly and Bill Stepien, Christie's former campaign manager, have invoked their Fifth Amendment right and are fighting those subpoenas in court.

On Monday, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) told the Newark Star-Ledger editorial board that if the Legislature lost in court, "I think at that point we really need to walk away" and not interfere with a concurrent investigation by the U.S. attorney.

Sweeney later backtracked and signaled his support for the legislative probe.

The committee is still reviewing thousands of documents, Wisniewski said, but will soon request oral testimony from some of the subpoena recipients.

During the panel's public session Tuesday, members debated whether they should begin to consider changes at the Port Authority, which operates the bridge, or wait until they complete their investigation to do so.

"So far, we have been billed over $200,000 by our counsel for two of our meetings," said Assemblywoman Amy Handlin (R., Monmouth). She argued that the panel should take up some of her proposals for better oversight and disclosure at the Port Authority.

But Wisniewski, who accused Handlin of showboating, said the panel could not possibly recommend proper changes until the investigation reached its conclusion.

"We don't know who the culprit is. We don't know why the culprit closed the lanes," he said.

The investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark appears to have accelerated. Michael Drewniak, Christie's press secretary, testified before a grand jury last week, according to ABC News.

Even as federal prosecutors interview Christie's staff, the governor's approval ratings have stabilized since the bridge scandal exploded in January, a new poll shows.

Fifty-five percent of registered voters approve of Christie's job performance - unchanged since February, but a 13-point drop since November, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton poll released Tuesday.

At the same time, 49 percent of voters said they did not believe Christie's explanation "at all" regarding the lane closures, according to the poll.


aseidman@phillynews.com

856-779-3846

@AndrewSeidman

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