New Jersey panel issues 20 subpoenas in bridge inquiry

TRENTON, N.J. — A new investigative committee issued subpoenas Thursday for 17 individuals and 3 organizations as it launched a deeper look into the involvement of Gov. Chris Christie's administration in ordering closures that caused a massive September traffic jam on roads leading to 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, the regional agency that controls the bridge. "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," it said.

Christie was not among those subpoenaed, according to committee head John Wisniewski.

As the new Assembly committee took its first actions, Christie tried to direct attention to his accomplishments in the state's recovery from 2012's Superstorm Sandy. But his administration also announced it had hired former federal prosecutor Randy Mastro to review his office's actions. Mastro specializes in organized crime cases.

His appointment followed the hiring of Reid Schar, a former assistant U.S. attorney who served as lead prosecutor on the corruption case involving then-Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, as special counsel to the new investigative committee.

Wisniewski, a Democrat, also heads the transportation committee that initially found links between the lane closures and the governor's office. It had started looking into spending and operations at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey a year ago and eventually turned to the lane closures.

"I am surprised as anybody that we are at this point," Wisniewski said. "We're going to follow the facts wherever they may lead us."

Wisniewski said the new committee intended to investigate why Kelly sent the email, including "who gave that person authorization to send it. We don't know why she felt empowered to send it."

He declined to immediately release the names of those subpoenaed, saying he wanted them to be served first. He said the committee would ask for responses in two weeks.

Earlier subpoenas had asked for documents dating to August, the month before the lane closures. The new ones will expand the scope; the committee wants to see documents first before calling witnesses, he said.

"We've seen nothing in the documents that has an email from the governor, or to the governor," Wisniewski said. "We've not seen any kind of direct link."

The bipartisan cooperation that Christie has touted in his political career seemed to be dissolving over the "Bridgegate" investigation: The committee, made up of eight Democrats and four Republicans, bickered Thursday about the hiring of 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 Republican leader. "Will Republicans be able to subpoena people they think have abused power in this building?"

At a time when he had hoped to build his national profile before the 2016 presidential contest, Christie faces multiple investigations. Besides the Assembly effort, the New Jersey Senate is setting up its own committee and the U.S. attorney's office has begun a preliminary inquiry.

In addition, the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said Monday it would audit how Christie's office spent $25 million in Superstorm Sandy recovery funds.

Hoping to change focus, Christie traveled to Manahawkin, a coastal community still rebuilding from the storm, and told residents and a swarm of media that $817 million in federal Sandy funds — about 70% of the money awarded to the state — had been forwarded to people in need.

Christie told constituents that he was as focused on rebuilding the state "as I was when I woke up on the morning of Oct. 30, 2012."

"Nothing will distract me from getting that job done," he said. "Nothing."

The speech had originally been scheduled for last week, but was canceled after the bridge scandal broke.

Tanfani reported from Trenton and Semuels from New York.

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