Opinions mixed on grand jury’s GWB probe

James Cohen in The Record, April 06, 2014

Media Source

Some see effort intensifying

A day after news emerged that the governor's spokesman had testified before a federal grand jury investigating the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal, legal experts differed in their opinions on the potential significance of the development.

One legal scholar said the fact that a federal grand jury was taking testimony from a witness in addition to subpoenaing documents reflected a normal course of events in a grand jury probe. But others with knowledge of the federal courts said it could signify an intensifying investigation into the matter that has rocked the Christie administration.

On Friday, Michael Drewniak, who serves as Governor Christie's press secretary, testified for two hours before the federal grand jury examining the lane closures that snarled traffic for four days in Fort Lee in September, according to ABC News.

It's unknown if Drewniak is the first witness to come before the grand jury sitting in Newark, but his attorney, Anthony Iacullo, told ABC News that his client is not a target of the panel's investigation.

Iacullo did not respond to emails and messages Saturday.

Federal prosecutors have been looking into the lane closures since February with Christie acknowledging that month that his office had received a subpoena from the grand jury. At the time, he said the office would comply with the subpoena.

Taking testimony under oath is a big step for a grand jury, said Joseph diGenova, a former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.

"When you subpoena documents, you have to get permission of the grand jury to do that, but that doesn't mean it's a full-fledged investigation because after gathering documents, they may decide they don't want to call witnesses," he said. "But if you start taking testimony, you're investigating."

Jim Cohen a Fordham University law professor who manages a federal litigation clinic through the school that assists clients facing federal indictments, also said the new stage could mean the grand jury is getting closer to deciding whether to issue an indictment.

"They don't typically indict on documents alone," Cohen said. "You need a witness in there to explain the documents and the significance is you're moving to a form in which you are more likely to obtain an indictment."

But George Thomas, a Rutgers University law professor who specializes in criminal procedure and law, said obtaining documents first and then taking testimony appears to him to be the normal progression of a grand jury inquiry.

All three said they had no inside knowledge of the specifics of the federal lane-closure investigation.

The U.S. attorney's investigation is one of three that were launched this year.

An investigative report by a law firm hired by the Christie administration and released March 27 concluded the governor had no advance knowledge of the lane closures.

A state legislative committee is also investigating the incident.

The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment Saturday.