Lawyers for former top aides to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were 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 for a traffic study that has never materialized, caused extensive, hours-long delays for four days in the town of Fort Lee, whose 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, including two new surveys released on Tuesday, show him losing ground as a potential presidential contender.
One of the new polls shows his job approval rating plummeted 20 points since the scandal broke late last year, with 41 percent of registered New Jersey voters approving of his job performance compared to 61 percent after his re-election in November, according to the Fairleigh Dickinson University survey. His disapproval rating now stands at 44 percent, the first time it has ticked higher than his approval rating, the poll indicates.
The second new poll found that Christie's "trustworthiness" is now at an all-time low. Just 23 percent of voters say "trustworthy" applies very well to Christie, down 20 points from October 2013, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll of 729 registered voters.
The subpoenas were issued in January by members of the Democrat-controlled state legislature, and Mercer County Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson ordered Kelly and Stepian to explain in court on Tuesday 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 on the bridge that spans the Hudson River between New Jersey and New York.
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.