GWB Committee Tries to Reset After Judge Ruling Limits Its Powers

By David Cruz

It’s been a tough week on West State Street for the Special Committee on Investigations. First the panel looking into the GWB lane closures had its reason for being questioned by the Senate president.

“I don’t know what it does to that committee right now,” Senate President Steve Sweeney said Monday. “That’s a discussion for leaders in both houses.”

Then it held a short, but rancorous meeting on Tuesday, which appeared to accomplish little, and then on Wednesday a judge rejected the committee’s effort to compel key figures in the scandal to hand over documents. In assessing the impact of the judge’s ruling, Committee Chairman John Wisniewski used a traffic metaphor.

“It’s not a detour; it’s a traffic light,” he said. “We’re going to spend a few minutes at the traffic light and continue on the journey. As I said, there are still three individuals and entities that are responding to documents. And we will continue to collect those. We now have a variety of documents which can form the basis of questions.”

Wisniewski says the governor, his campaign and former Port Authority Chairman David Samson are still responding to subpoenas, so the committee’s not even done collecting documents. He said he found some positives in Judge Jacobson’s decision.

“Most importantly for the committee, she affirmed and broadened the ability of the committee to grant immunity. She said the subpoena issued was too broad, but she gave a us a road map on how to narrow that subpoena,” he noted. “But I think most importantly we have the ability to continue to receive documents from the various people who are still producing.”

On an impromptu sidewalk conference call today, Sweeney and others discussed a schedule for when the committee might start to call witnesses. We overheard May. Meanwhile, Republicans repeated what they’ve been saying for weeks now — that the committee should stick to what it knows.

“Everybody agrees that the Port Authority is out of control and it’s a dysfunctional agency,” said Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick. “Now Amy Handlin, one of the members of the Republican caucus, has a whole host of bills and we’re ready to talk about them. My question is why not do legislation?”

The committee is under pressure now — internally from Republicans who see the slow pace of progress as an opening to call its motives into question and externally from a public that is starting to wonder how much all of this is going to cost them. The latest estimate for the committee’s work is $250,000. That’s on top of the price tag for the governor’s own internal probe, which is said to be at $1 million and counting.

The committee is not out if options. They can appeal Judge Jacobson’s decision or issue new subpoenas with a more narrow scope. But that will likely mean more time in court and less time actually investigating what happened and why at the GWB in September.