David Wildstein held in contempt for refusing to answer questions about GW Bridge lane closures

Former Port Authority executive David Wildstein testified before the New Jersey Assembly transportation committee on Jan. 9, 2014. SOURCE: New Jersey Assembly

A former Port Authority executive was held in contempt after refusing to answer questions posed by New Jersey lawmakers investigating the sudden lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, which resulted in massive traffic jams and delayed emergency response in Fort Lee for four days in September.

Emails and text messages made public last week showed the lane closures were ordered in what appeared to be an act of political retribution.

Read more: Chris Christie fires 2 top aides involved in politically-motivated GW bridge lane closures

David Wildstein, who was appointed by Gov. Chris Christie (R-New Jersey) to serve as the Director of Interstate Capital Projects for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was subpoenaed to testify before the New Jersey Assembly transportation committee last Thursday about his involvement in the lane closures.

One of the emails from Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, to Wildstein declared that it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Wildstein replied, “Got it”.

Wildstein, who unsuccessfully tried to quash the legislature’s subpoena in court, refused to answer questions or even to confirm that he had worked for the Port Authority.

“On the advice of my counsel, I respectfully assert my right to remain silent under the United States and New Jersey constitutions,” said Wildstein.

Wildstein’s attorney, Alan Zegas, explained that the right to remain silent was invoked because there have been “threats” made in the media about bringing criminal charges against Wildstein in connection with the lane closures.

“The Fifth Amendment is one of the most sacrosanct rights any person has. We have sat by in the past several weeks and have heard allegations made against Mr. Wildstein that he has violated federal law or violated state laws and that investigations are going to begin,” said Zegas. “I’m not suggesting in any way and I don’t believe that Mr. Wildstein is guilty of anything. Yet at the same time, he has a right under both the federal and state constitutions to not give answers that could be used by a prosecutor were they to charge him – even if they were to charge him wrongly. So if his answer would furnish an element of proof in a prosecutor’s case, then a person in a position of Mr. Wildstein does not have an obligation to answer. It’s an extremely important right, and it’s important to him that it be asserted in this context, in this environment.”

But according to Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D), chairman of the transportation committee, New Jersey’s law (NJS52:133) does not excuse a witness from refusing to answer questions deemed by the committee to be “proper and pertinent to the inquiry” even “on the ground that answering that question might or would incriminate him.”

Wisniewski pointed out that statute also enables the committee to find Wildstein in contempt, which is a misdemeanor.

Zegas argued that the statutes cited by Wisniewski conflict with the rights guaranteed by the U.S. and New Jersey constitutions.

“I understand this committee’s view of the rules and what the rules might say, but in my legal opinion, the federal and state constitutions trump the rules that the chair is making reference to,” said Zegas.

He also cautioned, “I don’t think that it would be appropriate for this committee to find that Mr. Wildstein by asserting his constitutional rights has thereby committed a crime. What a horrible message that would send.”

Notwithstanding Zegas’s objections, the committee voted unanimously – 4 Republicans and 8 Democrats – to hold Wildstein in contempt for his “refusal to answer proper and pertinent questions”.

During the hearing, Democratic Assemblyman Thomas Giblin beseeched Wildstein to live up to his reputation as someone who takes his civic duties seriously and help the committee to find “some type of solutions and answers” to prevent similar incidents in the future.

“This is not against you personally. It’s about New Jersey and what we aspire in terms of better government and more transparency,” said Giblin. “And what I would suggest is don’t let David Wilstein be the fall guy on some of these issues that have cropped up in recent months. You deserve better. You have a reputation that precedes you today and I think you want to build on that reputation.”

Wisniewski emphasized that the committee’s questions simply asked Wildstein to corroborate and clarify the statements made in the emails and text messages that Zegas furnished to the committee on Wildstein’s behalf. More importantly, Wisniewski said Wildstein’s testimony is needed to answer questions about who in Christie’s administration knew about the plan to close the lanes and when.

Read more: NJ Gov. Chris Christie apologizes for GW bridge lane closures but denies involvement

Zegas suggested that Wildstein may be able to provide more information to aid the committee’s investigation “if the Attorneys General for New Jersey, New York, and the United States were all to agree to cloak Mr. Wildstein with an immunity”.

To which Wisniewski replied, “That’s your job. We just want answers to our questions.”

“Understood. I’m suggesting a way you can get there,” Zegas said.

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