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Christie campaign seeks OK to raise funds for bridge investigation legal costs

Chris Christie's campaign committee is seeking approval to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay legal fees and the costs of complying with subpoenas in the so called “Bridgegate” investigations.  

The request to be allowed to raise contributions came in a letter to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission from Mark Sheridan, a lawyer for the Christie campaign committee. In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by NBC News, Sheridan wrote that without the commission’s approval, the campaign committee otherwise “will find itself without the means necessary to respond to the subpoenas and will arguably face contempt charges” in connection with investigations by federal prosecutors and a state legislative panel into the George Washington Bridge lane closures in September 2011.

The commission, which enforces New Jersey election laws, has scheduled a meeting for Feb. 11 to consider the Christie's committee's request. "As far as we know, there has been no situation like this," said Joe Donohue, deputy director of the commission. "There are multiple issues here."

New Jersey election rules bar office holders from using campaign funds to defend themselves  in criminal investigations and the state commission has even sued state office holders who have attempted to do so.

But Sheridan’s  letter states that the Christie campaign committee's issues are "distinct from those situations" because the subpoenas were served on the Christie campaign, not the governor himself. In addition, it says that the Christie committee, which spent $12,187,095 on the governor's re-election last year, has only $126,608 on hand -- and is just $12,905 shy of a state mandated limit on how much it can spend (imposed because the governor accepted $8.2 million in public funds.)

Complying with the subpoena will apparently cost considerably more than that, sources familiar with the matter tell NBC News. Lawyers for the election committee, which had between 20 and 30 employees, say they need to hire an outside vendor, such as a computer forensics firm, "at significant cost" to copy and preserve the hard drives of computers, tablets and smart phones used by all those who worked on Christie's re-election, according to Sheridan's letter. Then its lawyers, from the high priced Washington firm of Patton Boggs, will need to review all the material.

Sources close to the committee say this could add up to "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in new committee expenditures, and force it to launch a special fundraising drive from the governor's supporters to pay the legal costs.

  "In this instance, the interests of justice require" that the campaign committee "be authorized to raise and expend such funds as are necessary to respond to the subpoenas issued" by the state Legislature and the U.S. attorney, Sheridan wrote in his letter. Enabling the committee to do so "is plainly in the public interest" because it would permit the Legislature and the U.S. attorney to complete their probes "in a timely fashion."

Both investigations are focused on whether the bridge lane closures in September, which snarled traffic in Fort Lee, N.J., over four days, were ordered as political retribution because the city’s mayor declined to endorse Christie's re-election bid.

While the commission considers the request, the campaign committee has been granted a three week extension to turn over to the legislative panel all emails, text messages and other documents relating to the lane closures, Sheridan confirmed. Although the legislative committee's subpoenas initially called for all parties to return their material by the close of business on Monday, a statement from the panel's co-chairs on Monday said that "numerous extensions have been granted , as is typical in such situations."

The campaign committee's response to the subpoenas could be key because it may be one of the few ways for legislators to quickly get relevant documents. One central figure in the bridge investigation is Bill Stepien, Christie's campaign manager, some of whose emails discussing the lane closures were turned over by David Wildstein, the former Christie political appointee at the Port Authority. Stepien's lawyer on Friday sent the committee a letter asked that a subpoena for all his emails and text messages about the lane closures be withdrawn because producing them could infringe on his Fifth Amendment rights not to incriminate himself. His lawyer added that his client "maintains his innocence of any wrongdoing, criminal or otherwise." 

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