TRENTON – Citing separation of powers concerns, a Mercer County judge would not take jurisdiction over two of the three issues brought by former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey official David Wildstein in his bid this morning to quash a subpoena compelling his appearance later today before the Assembly Transportation Committee.
Judge Mary Jacobson took jurisdiction on one matter and ruled regarding the scope of the subpoena wording that the legislative committee has broad authority and investigatory powers.
Wildstein, the ex-N.J. appointee at the center of the Fort Lee lane closure fiasco last September, is subpoenaed to appear before Chair John Wisniewski’s panel and face questions on his role in what has turned into a national controversy for a governor with presidential ambitions.
Wildstein attorney Alan Zegas argued three basic points to Jacobson: that the subpoena procedurally was flawed, that the Transportation Committee’s subpoena power was solely to investigate the toll increases, and that Wisniewski had a conflict of interest because as an attorney he represented an entity that did business with the Authority.
Zegas argued that Wisniewski’s signature appears to be different on subpoena documents of Dec. 12 and 30 and on a financial disclosure statement.
He also argued that the subpoena power granted to the committee in 2013 referred specifically to probing circumstances concerning the toll increases that had gone into effect.
On the conflict of interest claim, Wildstein’s lawyer argued that Wisniewski’s firm represented a marine dredging company, Cashman, that had leased land from the city of Elizabeth.
Elizabeth sold the land – used for a construction staging area for work on the Goethals Bridge – to Cashman. Zegas argued that Wisniewski had a conflict of interest because he simultaneously represented Cashman, which had land the Authority had an interest in, while pursuing investigations into the Authority.
Leon Sokol, representing the Transportation Committee, argued today at the outset that the court lacked jurisdiction to rule over Wildstein being subpoenaed by a legislative committee. Wildstein is a former PolitickerNJ editor.
And he argued that the mere fact a part-time legislator with outside business dealings represented a company dealing with the Port Authority does not mean a conflict automatically occurs.
Zegas argued that the signature discrepancy was substantive and not merely a technical matter. A subpoena “deprives Mr. Wildstein of his liberty,’’ Zegas told the judge.
On the specific limits of the committee power, Zegas tried to emphasize to Jacobson that the subpoena power issued in 2013 had one purpose: Investigating the toll increases. “It did not have anything to do with what is going on today,’’ Zegas said.
Sokol countered on the signatures issue that specific direction on how to issue a subpoena rests with the committee chairman.
He called the conflict of interest claim “a bogus issue.’’
And on the scope of the committee’s authority in the subpoena, Sokol said it has very broad authority to look into all aspects of Port Authority finances. Lane closures is something that potentially could affect the Authority in a financial way, Sokol said.
Zegas countered that “this matter is purely political,’’ and that the committee wants answers – not about finances – but about whether Gov. Chris Christie used his power to punish Fort Lee’s mayor for not endorsing his re-election.
Jacobson said that there is a serious separation of powers concern here because the court does not supervise the Legislature as a co-equal branch of government.
As a result, she expressed some reservations about proceeding. She did not want to decide on the signature discrepancy issue for that reason.
Jacobson also had concerns with the conflicts of interest claim and felt uncomfortable passing judgment and would not take jurisdiction.
On the scope of the subpoena power, she took jurisdiction and ruled the panel has broad authority to investigate.