TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey lawmakers announced Monday that they are intensifying their investigation into the role that politics played in causing massive local traffic jams last fall, a probe that threatens to undermine Republican Gov. Chris Christie's second term and his chances at a 2016 presidential run.
A special Assembly committee is being formed that will have subpoena power and a special counsel appointed to it. Its chairman is to be John Wisniewski, a Democrat who as head of the chamber's transportation committee launched the initial investigation into the closing of lanes leading to one of the world's busiest bridges.
"As the evidence in the case has unfolded, it's become clear the questions that need answering here are no longer just transportation questions," said Vincent Prieto, the incoming speaker of the state Assembly and also a Democrat.
High-ranking officials in Christie's administration were involved in ordering the closures of lanes in September from the town of Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge that connects New Jersey to New York City, the investigation revealed last week.
Christie apologized but denied involvement. He also fired a top aide, Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly, and cut ties with campaign adviser Bill Stepien, who'd been widely seen as a potential campaign manager if Christie runs for president. Wisniewski said last week that both Kelly and Stepien could receive subpoenas soon, and so could others in the administration.
The scandal has changed the tone of state politics.
Christie must figure out how to address it when he gives his State of the State address on Tuesday. His administration has not revealed what he might say, but certainly it will now have a bigger audience and announcements about tax cut plans will no longer be the most anticipated part. The same could be true at the governor's inauguration for a second term next week.
Also on Monday, U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat, announced that the inspector general at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will audit the state's use of $25 million in federal money for an ad campaign to promote New Jersey tourism after Superstorm Sandy. Christie and his family appeared in the ads. His administration chose a politically connected public relations company over another firm that had bid $2 million less. The winning bidder proposed using Christie in the ads, while the other did not.
Revelations about the contract caused a bit of a flap in New Jersey last year as Christie was seeking re-election.
Colin Reed, a spokesman for Christie, derided the timing of Pallone's announcement Monday and noted that the ad campaign was part of an action plan approved by the federal government.
"Federal agency reviews are routine and standard operating procedure with all federally allocated resources to ensure that funds are distributed fairly," Reed said in a statement. "We're confident that any review will show that the ads were a key part in helping New Jersey get back on its feet after being struck by the worst storm in state history."
Reed also noted that HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan praised the use of some money to promote a return to the state's beaches, a major tourist attraction and economic driver for New Jersey.
Ian O'Connor, a spokesman for the inspector general's office, said the audit is being done at the request of Congress. He would not comment further. Pallone had requested an investigation in August.