TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Democrats in New Jersey sharpened their aim at Republican Gov. Chris Christie on Monday, forming special legislative committees to explore the role politics played in traffic jams last fall and announcing that the investigation has grown into an abuse of power probe.
The intensifying investigation, which threatens to undermine Christie's second term and his chances at a 2016 presidential run, revealed last week that high-ranking Christie aides and appointees were involved in ordering lane closings in September as apparent political payback that led to massive gridlock in the town of Fort Lee.
A new special Assembly committee, given subpoena power and a special counsel, will be charged with finding out how high the plot went up Christie's chain of command, said a leading state Democrat, Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald.
"It is clearly an abuse of power," he said. "The question is, who abused their power and how high did it go?"
The committee will focus exclusively on the traffic jams in Fort Lee, whose mayor has said he believes the lanes were closed to punish him for not endorsing Christie. The panel will be chaired by the head of the Assembly transportation committee, John Wisniewski, who launched the initial investigation into the lane closings.
The state Senate announced that it planned to establish its own committee, also with subpoena power.
Christie has apologized over the lane closings but denied involvement. He also fired a top aide and cut ties with a political adviser who'd been widely seen as a potential campaign manager if Christie runs for president. Wisniewski said Monday that both of them could receive subpoenas soon, though he could subpoena their emails first.
Wisniewski also referred contempt charges against another Christie loyalist, David Wildstein, to a county prosecutor. Wildstein, a former Christie appointee to a powerful New York City-area transit agency, was subpoenaed to testify before lawmakers but invoked his right against self-incrimination and refused to answer questions or even confirm that he worked for the agency.
Wildstein's lawyer indicated that an appeal of the contempt finding would be filed, said prosecutor Joseph Bocchini. If that happens, the prosecutor said, any action by his office would be delayed until after a decision is made on the on the appeal.
The scandal widened last week when documents were released showing that, in addition to the apparent political retribution by Christie's team, the mayor of Fort Lee asked Christie's top deputy at the transit agency whether the lane closings were a punishment for him and why.
The mayor, Democrat Mark Sokolich, had noted that he didn't endorse Christie for re-election but told CNN last week that he couldn't recall "a specific request to endorse" from the governor's campaign staff, though other events could be seen as an attempt to attract his endorsement.