- Associated Press - Monday, April 7, 2014

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - The New Jersey Legislature’s top Democrat said an investigation by fellow lawmakers into politically motivated traffic jams should end if a judge quashes the panel’s subpoenas before quickly reversing course Monday and saying the committee has not run its course.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney issued a statement late Monday backtracking on comments made to The Star-Ledger of Newark’s editorial board earlier in the day.

Sweeney told the board the legislative committee should “walk away” if Judge Mary Jacobson doesn’t rule in its favor. The judge has been asked to decide whether two key figures in a lane closing plot orchestrated by Gov. Chris Christie’s aides can be forced to hand over emails and text messages to the committee.

Sweeney told the newspaper there wouldn’t be much left for the committee to do if subpoenas to former Christie loyalists Bridget Kelly and Bill Stepien are withdrawn.

“If we lose that lawsuit that we can’t make people speak, then I think at that point we really need to walk away and let the U.S. Attorney - not interfere with his investigation,” Sweeney said.

U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman is conducting a federal criminal investigation into the lane closings and allegations that members of Christie’s cabinet tied a city’s Superstorm Sandy recovery aid to approval of a redevelopment project. The traffic blocking operation near the George Washington Bridge caused hours-long backups in the town of Fort Lee, apparently to retaliate against the mayor, a Democrat who did not endorse Christie’s re-election bid.

The scandal has become a major distraction for Christie by overshadowing his second term and threatening to derail any plans to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

Sweeney now says the legislative committee “has a mission separate from federal investigators … to ensure any abuse of power that occurred does not happen again.”

He said an appeal would be considered if Jacobson rules to withdraw the subpoenas.

Sweeney, a possible gubernatorial candidate in 2017 and ally of South Jersey political power broker George Norcross III, has frequently compromised with the Republican governor. Norcross also has a close working relationship with Christie.

Twenty-six people and organizations close to Christie, including his re-election campaign, have complied with subpoenas from the legislative committee. The panel’s co-chairman, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, said it would be a mistake to shut down the panel before its investigation is complete.

“A complete investigation by the Legislature is our only hope to ensure that residents of northern New Jersey never again become pawns in some vindictive political power play,” Wisniewski said.

Sen. Loretta Weinberg, the other co-chair, said she could give the Senate President “all the reasons we should continue our work.”

Five people close to Christie have been fired or resigned amid the scandal. Christie fired Kelly, a former deputy chief of staff, after learning she set the traffic jams in motion with the message, “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” He also cut ties with Stepien, a two-time campaign manager and top political adviser, who received an email about the traffic gridlock while the lanes were closed.

Christie has denied knowing what his associates were up to while he was running for a second term.

A review of the traffic jams commissioned by Christie cleared the governor of any knowledge of the plot’s planning or execution, placing the blame on Kelly and David Wildstein, who had been a Christie loyalist at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency that operates the bridge.

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