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July 28, 2014

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Blagojevich prosecutor to lead NJ scandal inquiry

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M. Spencer Green / AP

In this June 4, 2012, file photo, former assistant United States Attorney Reid Schar speaks during an interview at the office of his law firm Jenner & Block in Chicago.

TRENTON, N.J.— The federal prosecutor who helped convict former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich of corruption was tapped Wednesday to investigate the apparent political payback scandal involving New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's administration.

Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar will advise a legislative committee investigating a plot that shut down lanes to the George Washington Bridge for four days in September, causing massive traffic jams in the town of Fort Lee. The plot apparently was hatched as a political vendetta, possibly against the town's Democratic mayor for not endorsing the Republican governor's re-election.

"A potential misuse of taxpayer resources for political purposes is a serious matter that requires an astute legal eye with experience in this realm to help guide the process," said Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, a Democrat.

Christie, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, has apologized and denied any knowledge of the plot's planning or execution. The scandal is the most serious threat to his political future so far, and four members of his circle have been fired or resigned.

More subpoenas will be issued Thursday, after the Assembly formally votes to continue its investigation in the new legislative session, according to state Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who is heading a special committee leading the probe. The New Jersey Senate and U.S. attorney's office are conducting parallel inquiries.

"This started out as an investigation into the Port Authority operations and finances and has led us in the governor's office," said Wisniewski, referring to the agency that runs the bridge. He said the investigation has shifted focus with the release of subpoenaed emails, mostly from private accounts.

The documents show a since-fired Christie deputy unleashed the traffic shutdown with an email message, "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."

"Got it," replied the recipient, David Wildstein, a Christie associate who has since resigned from the Port Authority.

Schar, who co-chairs the white collar defense and investigations practice for the law firm Jenner & Block LLP, issued a statement Wednesday saying his firm "understands the importance of this investigation" and will "work diligently" to support the committee.

Blagojevich is serving a 14-year prison term for trying to sell an appointment to President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat.

Schar, the lead prosecutor in the Blagojevich case, has a reputation as a bright, serious-minded workhorse who shuns showmanship and bluster.

A rare display of emotion came during Blagojevich's second trial when a visibly agitated Schar began cross-examining the twice-elected governor. Jumping up from the prosecution table, Schar nearly yelled his first question, "You are a convicted liar, correct?" It was a reference to the sole conviction at Blagojevich's first trial, of lying to the FBI.

After a flurry of defense objections, Blagojevich eventually answered softly, "Yes."

Schar also helped prosecute Tony Rezko, a onetime fundraiser for Obama.

As he was leaving the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago for private practice in 2012, Schar told The Associated Press he had "no interest in representing political figures accused of wrongdoing."

"I have seen the toll corruption takes on this state," he said.

Associated Press reporter Michael Tarm contributed from Chicago.

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