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5th Amendment cited in N.J. bridge inquiry

| Tuesday, March 11, 2014, 7:15 p.m.

TRENTON — It's now up to a judge whether two key figures in a political payback scandal ensnaring Gov. Chris Christie's administration will have to turn over text messages and other private communications to New Jersey lawmakers investigating the case.

Fired Christie staffer Bridget Kelly and two-time campaign manager Bill Stepien risk self-incrimination if they comply with subpoenas for documents related to traffic tie-ups at the George Washington Bridge, their lawyers told a county judge.

A lawyer for the legislative panel countered that the law does not entitle them to the blanket protection they seek. Rather, any documents deemed potentially incriminating by Kelly and Stepien should be argued on a case-by-case basis, the lawyer said.

The subpoenas seek documents concerning the September blocking of approach lanes to the bridge, which caused hours-long backups in nearby Fort Lee, apparently to punish the town's Democratic mayor. Mercer County Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson requested more briefs, so she is unlikely to rule before the end of the month.

Lawyers for Kelly and Stepien partially based their Fifth Amendment claims on a parallel criminal investigation by the U.S. attorney's office, which is seeking to uncover whether federal laws were broken. The legislative panel, which lacks authority to prosecute, wants to find out how high up Christie's chain of command the lane-closing scheme went and why it was hatched.

Christie, whose viability as a 2016 Republican presidential candidate has been called into question since the scandal erupted, has said he knew nothing of the plot's planning or execution. He said in December that no one on his staff was involved, a statement he was forced to retract in January when private emails showed otherwise. An email from Kelly saying “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” appeared to set the scheme in motion.

She received the reply “got it” from David Wildstein, a Christie loyalist at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

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