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N.J. lawmakers form special investigative panel to look into bridge lane closures

Tim Larsen / Governor's Office via Reuters, file

Gov. Chris Christie with his then-deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, right, after a fire on the Jersey Shore last year.

New Jersey lawmakers said Monday they will form a special investigative committee, with the power to order testimony from witnesses, to probe the George Washington Bridge lane closures that have exploded into a scandal for Gov. Chris Christie.

There had been questions about whether the Assembly’s power to subpoena witnesses and documents would expire this week. But the incoming Assembly speaker, Vincent Prieto, pledged his support and said the committee would also be given a special counsel.

“If there’s abuse of power, we want to know about it,” he told reporters.

The special investigative committee will be led by Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Democrat who has been leading a probe through the Assembly’s transportation committee.

Documents unearthed by that committee and released last week made it appear that Christie’s now-fired deputy chief of staff and Christie appointees at the Port Authority, which controls the bridge, ordered the lane closures as an act of political payback.

Christie insisted last week that he had nothing to do with the lane closures, which caused four days of massive traffic backups in September in the New Jersey city of Fort Lee that slowed police and paramedics, frustrated drivers and and enraged the Democratic mayor there.

The governor pledged at a news conference that “of course we’ll work cooperatively” with investigations into the lane closures.

Democrats in the Assembly, in a news release, said that members of the special investigation committee will be appointed by Prieto and Majority Leader Lou Greenwald, both Democrats. Christie is a Republican.

Two of Christie’s appointees to the Port Authority have resigned since the story broke, and last week Christie fired the deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, and cut ties with a longtime campaign adviser.

Greenwald said Monday on MSNBC that he was confident the lane closures were not ordered by Kelly by herself.

“Someone else knew something,” he said. “Who that person is, how high they go, is something we need to understand.”

One of the Port Authority appointees, David Wildstein, last week invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer questions from state lawmakers. State lawmakers held Wildstein in contempt, and on Monday they referred the finding to a county prosecutor. Wildstein’s lawyer suggested at the hearing that his client would be open to talking under immunity from prosecution.

Wisniewski has raised the possibility of issuing a subpoena to Kelly and other officials. He said Monday those subpoenas are expected no earlier than Thursday, after the new Assembly session begins and the special committee is authorized.

In another headache for Christie, a New Jersey congressman said Monday that a federal agency would investigate whether the state misspent Hurricane Sandy relief money by overpaying for tourism ads that featured Christie during his re-election campaign.