Subpoena fighters go to court as Corzine repeats call for records

Subpoena fighters go to court as Corzine repeats call for records

February 14, 2007 Star-Ledger
Federal prosecutors and attorneys for the state Legislature are due to square off today in an increasingly political fight over the confidentiality of legislative records being sought in a criminal corruption probe.

The closed-door hearing in U.S. District Court in Trenton comes after Gov. Jon Corzine reiterated his call yesterday for the release of documents being sought by U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie in an expanding investigation into lawmakers' possible conflicts of interest.

"I think we ought to comply with the law and respond to the subpoena," Corzine said. "We ought to be taking those steps that give the public the assurance that we're getting our house in order with regard to ethics."

Republicans, the minority in the Legislature, also have been calling for release of the records and have requested an internal inquiry into who authorized hiring an outside attorney to challenge the federal subpoena.

"It is incomprehensible that the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services would secretly hire outside counsel to fight subpoenas," said Sen. Anthony Bucco (R-Morris), a member of the Legislative Services Commission, which oversees the OLS.

Separately, attorneys for state Sen. Wayne Bryant (D-Camden), whose no-show job with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey initially sparked the interest of the U.S. attorney, moved to intervene in the court hearing, according to sources familiar with the proceedings.

The federal investigation into Bryant led to at least three subpoenas that were served on the OLS, the state Senate and the state Treasury Department last fall, attorneys for the Senate Democrats confirmed at the time.

The subpoenas served on the Senate and the Treasury Department sought budget-related documents, which were quickly produced. However the OLS balked at providing the information, citing attorney-client privilege.

In addition to serving as the nonpartisan research and operations arm of the Legislature, the OLS acts as counsel to the Legislature and its members.

Democratic leaders of the Legislature said yesterday they believed the scope of the OLS subpoena was narrowly focused and not necessarily indicative of a broader investigation into the Legislature itself. But they admitted they had neither reviewed the subpoena nor been briefed by the U.S. attorney.

In their first public comments on the matter amid the growing political fallout, the Democrats said they have fully complied with all requests from Christie's office.

Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex) and Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D-Camden) said they were "unaware of a broad-ranging investigation as has been reported in the media."

In a joint statement, the two said: "What apparently is in dispute is a narrow issue that the Office of Legislative Services believes to be of constitutional significance, and ultimately it will be up to the court to decide the matter."

That issue is whether communications between attorneys for the Legislature and its members are presumed to be confidential -- an argument that was shot down nearly a decade ago during the investigation of President Bill Clinton, when independent counsel Kenneth Starr successfully argued that government lawyers work for the public.

Codey said if individual members of the Legislature had been the subject of any subpoena, they would have been notified.

"I don't know anybody that has been notified," he said.

It is clear, though, that Christie is not confining his questions to Bryant. Several legislative officers and budget officials have been interviewed by the FBI in recent weeks regarding the awarding of millions of dollars in special discretionary funds.

The confidentiality argument due to play out today in the courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Mary Cooper would affect any subpoenas served on the Legislature.

The hearing will be closed and its proceedings sealed because the matter is part of an ongoing grand jury investigation.

Officials within the Office of Legislative Services would not discuss the matter. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney declined comment.

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