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N.J. Democrats divided on renewing 'Bridgegate' probe into Christie

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK, March 30 (Reuters) - A day after two former allies of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were sentenced to prison in the "Bridgegate" scandal, a state lawmaker who helped uncover the scheme to cause massive traffic jams over a political slight wants to keep pushing for answers to the two biggest unanswered questions.

What did the governor know about the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge, and when did he know it?

To learn the truth, the legislature's Bridgegate probe should be resumed, with Christie subpoenaed and required to testify, said Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who co-chaired a special committee that unearthed the damning emails and texts revealing the plot. He also is campaigning to replace Christie as governor.

But his fellow Democratic leaders in the state legislature on Thursday offered a lukewarm response, saying it was not clear what further investigation would accomplish.

Bridget Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff, was sentenced on Wednesday to 1-1/2 years in prison. Bill Baroni, former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, got a prison sentence of two years.

Along with David Wildstein, another former Port Authority executive who pleaded guilty, they are the only officials charged in connection with the shutdown of access lanes at the bridge in Fort Lee, New Jersey, in September 2013.

The resulting traffic nightmare was intended to punish the town's Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, for declining to endorse Christie's re-election campaign.

Christie has denied any involvement, but the fallout damaged his unsuccessful 2016 presidential campaign and saddled him with historically low approval ratings at home. A spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

At trial, numerous witnesses, including close Christie advisers, testified that the governor and his inner circle were aware of the lane closures much earlier than they admitted publicly. Following her sentencing, Kelly said she refused to be a "scapegoat" and vowed to fight her conviction.

The criminal case might never have existed had it not been for the legislative committee, which used its subpoena power to secure communications between Kelly, Baroni and Wildstein. Those documents included the now-infamous email from Kelly to Wildstein saying, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."

"We need to follow the facts wherever they go," Wisniewski said in a phone interview. He noted that Christie previously invoked executive privilege to avoid turning over texts and emails in what he called a "Nixonian" move.

But the assembly speaker, Democrat Vincent Prieto, said in a statement it was "unlikely after the federal trial that additional hearings or subpoenas will provide new information."

Prieto, whose approval would be needed for a new investigative committee, accused Wisniewski of using the issue to boost his campaign for governor. Christie cannot run for another term this year due to term limits.

Wisniewski, however, said leaving the investigation half-finished would allow such abuses to occur again.

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a longtime Christie foe who co-chaired the investigative committee, said she had "mixed feelings" about further action.

"I'm not sure what our goal would be," Weinberg, a Democrat, said in a phone interview. She said it was not clear whether the legislature could force Christie to testify under oath or gain access to his communications.

Christie's status as a lame-duck governor is another factor weighing against a renewed probe, as is the potential cost to taxpayers, Weinberg said.

The target of the scheme, Mayor Sokolich, said it was obvious the plot extended beyond the three charged defendants.

"There were many others who were half a text or one email conversation away from getting indicted," he said, adding that Christie has already been found guilty in the court of public opinion.

"I guess we'll never know for sure," Sokolich said. "Welcome to Jersey politics." (Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by David Gregorio)