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Ex-Christie aides face legal showdown over N.J. traffic scandal

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) talks with Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable and CEO of the New Jersey E
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) talks with Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable and CEO of the New Jersey E

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Former top aides to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were due in court on Tuesday to explain why they have not turned over records and documents to investigators of a traffic scandal that has threatened the Republican governor's political future.

Bridget Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Stepian, his former campaign manager, have so far not cooperated with subpoenas issued by state lawmakers looking into the September incident, when Christie aides apparently helped orchestrate traffic jams at the busy George Washington Bridge.

The closing of several access lanes to the bridge, ostensibly due to a traffic study that has never materialized, caused extensive, hours-long delays for four days in the town of Fort Lee, where the Democratic mayor had not endorsed Christie's re-election bid.

Christie, widely seen as a potential Republican candidate for the White House in 2016, has said he was unaware of his aides' actions and has severed ties with several of them.

Nevertheless, the scandal has hurt his image, and polls show him losing ground as a potential presidential contender.

The subpoenas were issued in January by members of the Democrat-controlled state legislature, and Mercer County Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson has ordered Kelly and Stepian to a court hearing on Tuesday to explain why she should not force them to comply.

Subpoenas were issued as well to Christie appointees at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the bridge, and to other top Christie aides.

The U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, Paul Fishman, also has opened an investigation into the traffic jams, which slowed school buses and emergency vehicles.

Kelly's attorney filed papers with the court last week laying out arguments as to why she should not be compelled to produce the documents, records and other communications sought in the subpoena.

The attorney, Michael Critchley, cited his client's constitutional rights against self-incrimination, her protection against unreasonable search and seizure, and her legal right to privacy.

He noted that Kelly is a likely subject of the U.S. attorney's investigation and that the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is intended to protect innocent people "ensnared by ambiguous circumstances."

"Ms. Kelly, therefore, finds herself ensnared in the very ambiguous circumstances for which the Fifth Amendment's protections are meant to serve," he wrote.

The scandal exploded with the public release of emails in January that included one by Kelly to Port Authority executive David Wildstein saying: "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."

Wildstein, a Christie appointee, replied: "Got it."

Wildstein resigned late last year, and Christie fired Kelly in January.

(Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

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