A New Jersey lawmaker on Saturday said he intends to formally request Governor Chris Christie and his staff hand over more correspondence and documents related to the bridge scandal that has engulfed Christie, a rising star in the Republican Party.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat who chairs his legislative body's Transportation Committee, told CNN he would make the request on Monday because "there's still a lot of documents we haven't gotten we'd like to see."
Wisniewski told CNN on Saturday no evidence or documents have surfaced that link Christie to the lane closures, but he said the Transportation Committee was probing whether anyone else in the governor's office might have been involved.
"Our investigation would be made immeasurably simpler if the governor's office would say, 'Please tell us what you'd like, we'll turn over all of those documents, the governmental emails, the personal emails, the correspondence, so that you can look at them and determine for yourself,'" Wisniewski told CNN.
Later in the day, other New Jersey democrats shared similar sentiments."The documents released this week related to the George Washington Bridge situation clearly show the need for a continued thorough investigation by the New Jersey General Assembly," Assembly Speaker-elect Vincent Prieto said in a statement.
"Many questions remain unanswered about this threat to public safety and abuse of power," he said. "I expect to call the Assembly into special session on Thursday to consider legislation that would reauthorize subpoena power so this investigation can continue."
Prieto is set to take the oath as speaker this coming week.
'Decision violates Federal Law and the laws of both states'
Documents related to the bridge closure scandal engulfing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie revealed on Friday that authorities were deeply divided about the shutdown, with one warning it was illegal and risking people's lives.
More than 1,000 pages of anxiously awaited documents subpoenaed by New Jersey lawmakers investigating the massive, four-day traffic jam on the George Washington bridge were made public after revelations that Christie's staff appeared to have orchestrated the closure as political payback.
Christie, seen as a likely contender for the White House in 2016, has said he knew nothing about the plan until damaging emails from his staff were revealed on Wednesday. He fired a close aide and publicly apologized for the fiasco.
The documents, many subpoenaed from former Port Authority executive David Wildstein, cast new light on the turmoil within the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency overseeing the nation's busiest bridge.
On the fourth day of the shutdown, Patrick Foye, executive director of the Port Authority, lashed out in an email to executives, including Port Authority Chairman David Samson, and ordered the lanes reopened.
"I believe this hasty and ill-advised decision violates Federal Law and the laws of both states," Foye said in the email.
"I pray that no life has been lost or trip of a hospital- or hospice-bound patient delayed," said Foye of the traffic jam that delayed ambulances, including one called for a 91-year-old woman who later died.
'It seems like we are punishing all for the sake of a few'
The documents show chaos and anger, but fail to clear up whether the epic tie-up was the result of what Christie said may have been a Port Authority traffic study.
In a September 6 email, Port Authority executive Daniel Jacobs, general manager of transportation, asked Gerard Quelch, in charge of planning and operations: "What is driving this?"
Quelch responded: "That is my question as well. A single toll operation invites potential disaster… It seems like we are punishing all for the sake of a few."
What is clear is that Port Authority police and bridge authorities had little advance notice of the shutdown, which they warned would paralyze Fort Lee, where three major roadways converge in an approach to the bridge.
"The 'test' was a monumental failure. Fort Lee is not happy," Bob Durando, director of the bridge, wrote in an email to a Port Authority traffic engineer.
There also appears to have been a concerted effort to keep the matter quiet. On the day he ordered the lanes reopened, Foye in an email told Wildstein's boss, Bill Baroni: "We are going to fix this fiasco."
Baroni wrote back: "I'm on my way to the office to discuss. There can be no public discourse."
Foye's response: "Bill that's precisely the problem: There has been no public discourse on this."
Christie said he was "blindsided" by the revelation that Kelly called for trouble at the commuter choke point, apparently to retaliate against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for not having endorsed Christie's re-election campaign.
Christie had counted on his victory in November to show bipartisan appeal to increase his chances of winning his party's nomination for president, political experts have said.
Any implication in the documents released on Friday that Christie or his staff knew more about the plot than they have acknowledged could cause the scandal to dog Christie.
"He's not fully in control of this story anymore," said Julian Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University. "Because he took such a firm stand yesterday and was emphatic that this was it, any information that shows otherwise will continue the story and force him to put more time on it."
Christie has long cultivated an image as a brash, tough-talking leader willing to buck his party for the good of his constituents. On Thursday, however, he took a more humble tone, saying: "I am not a bully."
Federal investigation, class-action suit
U.S. attorney for New Jersey Paul Fishman, whose job Christie held before being elected governor, has opened an investigation into the decision to close the bridge lanes.
The governor also faces a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court on Thursday by Rosemarie Arnold, a lawyer charging that area residents suffered financially from being trapped in traffic, although experts question the strength of the case.
A personal injury lawyer from Fort Lee, New Jersey, filed the case in federal court on behalf of six local residents who missed work or suffered other alleged damages due to the traffic jam last September. Many more people could join the plaintiffs if the court allows the case to become a class action.
The lawsuit was filed on Thursday, a day after New Jersey officials released emails that appeared to show the Republican governor's staff plotting a massive traffic jam in September, seemingly to retaliate against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie's re-election campaign.
Rosemarie Arnold, the lawyer behind the lawsuit, said she has received "tons" of emails from residents detailing damages, including panic attacks, caused by the traffic jam.
"I have no political motivation whatsoever," said Arnold, who specializes in cases involving car accidents, defective products and wrongful death. "I'm a Republican. I voted for him."
The lawsuit names Christie, the state of New Jersey, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the governor's aides as defendants.
Some experts were skeptical of the lawsuit's chances.
"Not every dispute ought to be resolved by a lawsuit," said Howard Erichson, a professor of Fordham University School of Law in New York. "The idea of class actions can be very useful, but I'm skeptical of this one."
Arnold said she was aware some would see the suit as frivolous, but insisted the damages suffered by commuters were serious. "You were gridlocked in every sense of the word," she said. "It was anxiety producing."
The lawsuit purports to represent all "those individuals and business owners who reside, work or own businesses in Northern New Jersey and who were caused to sustain injury, either physical or psychological and/or who were caused to sustain economic damages and loss of liberty as the result of the conduct" of the defendants.
The six current plaintiffs arrived late for work when lanes to the George Washington Bridge heading into New York City were shut down for four days.
The lawsuit asserts a mix of constitutional and tort claims on behalf of local residents and seeks money damages for their injuries, including docked pay for missing work.
Among other things, the lawsuit claims that New Jersey residents were deprived of their freedom of interstate movement under the so-called privileges or immunities clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The clause, which became part of the Constitution in 1868, asserts: "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States."
The clause is rarely invoked in class actions, said David Noll, a professor at Rutgers School of Law-Newark, but he said it could be made into a successful claim in this case.
While state workers acting in their official capacities are protected from most claims, there is an exception for when they intentionally break the law.
"It's not totally implausible because there seems to have been an intention to keep people from using the bridge," he said.
But the proposed class is likely to be considered too broad for the case to move forward as a class action, say some legal experts. In recent years, courts have made it hard to bring lawsuits on behalf of large numbers of plaintiffs.
Courts generally want to see in class-action cases that the plaintiffs are affected largely in the same way. "But the questions of how that wrongdoing affected each individual driver are going to be hugely varied," Erichson said.
Judges often want to test whether a case can move forward as a class action early on, said Christopher Seeger, a plaintiffs' lawyer who regularly brings class actions.
He said the lawyers in the bridge case would likely have to narrow their class definition to be successful or they would have to pursue individual cases.
"Class actions are designed with this kind of thing in mind, and I love the concept behind the lawsuit," he said. "The problem is they're biting off more they can chew."
Arnold said she disagreed.
"They all took the bridge and they all suffered as result of the Christie administration," she said.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun