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‘Bridgegate’ Convictions Tossed Out by U.S. Supreme Court (5)

May 7, 2020, 8:09 PM

The U.S. Supreme Court threw out the convictions of two allies of former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for the George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal in a ruling that limits the power of federal prosecutors to target state and local corruption.

The court unanimously said Thursday that Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni didn’t commit criminal fraud under U.S. law, even if they lied about why they closed two access lanes in the 2013 “Bridgegate” scheme. The closures created crippling traffic jams in Fort Lee, New Jersey, to punish the borough’s Democratic mayor for not endorsing the Republican Christie’s re-election bid.

“For no reason other than political payback, Baroni and Kelly used deception to reduce Fort Lee’s access lanes to the George Washington Bridge -- and thereby jeopardized the safety of the town’s residents,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court. “But not every corrupt act by state or local officials is a federal crime.”

The ruling adds to a line of Supreme Court decisions in recent decades narrowing the reach of federal corruption laws, including a 2016 ruling that tossed out the bribery conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. Kelly and Baroni had said a ruling against them would have turned routine political conduct into potential fraud.

Kelly was seeking to avoid serving a 13-month prison sentence. Baroni had begun serving his 18-month sentence before being released on bail when the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case last year.

Trump Tweet

“Today, the court gave me back my name and began to reverse the six-and-a-half-year nightmare that has become my life,” Kelly said in an emailed statement. “Having been maligned, I now stand with my family and friends knowing that due process worked.”

Baroni said in a statement: “After years of investigations, indictments, trials, appeals and even prison, today the court has vindicated me and has made clear that I committed no crime.”

In a tweet, President Donald Trump said the prosecutions stemmed from “grave misconduct” by the Obama administration.

“Congratulations to former Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, and all others involved, on a complete and total exoneration (with a 9-0 vote by the U.S. Supreme Court) on the Obama DOJ Scam referred to as ‘Bridgegate,’” Trump tweeted.

Trump’s claims of exoneration glossed over the high court’s sharp words of disapproval for Kelly’s and Baroni’s actions.

‘Deception and Corruption’

“The evidence the jury heard no doubt shows wrongdoing -- deception, corruption, abuse of power,” Kagan wrote. “But the federal fraud statutes at issue do not criminalize all such conduct.”

Christie denied knowledge of the lane closings and wasn’t charged in the plot, though it helped end his presidential ambitions. His second term as governor ended in 2018.

On Twitter, Christie criticized former U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, who brought the case, and the Justice Department leadership under former President Barack Obama.

“It is good for all involved that today justice has finally been done,” Christie tweeted. “What cannot be undone is the damage that was visited upon all of the people who had nothing to do with this incident by the prosecutorial misconduct and personal vindictiveness of Paul Fishman.”

Fishman said in a statement he was “disappointed that the Supreme Court has reversed the unanimous decision of three Court of Appeals judges” that “the defendants committed several federal crimes.” He noted that the decision doesn’t affect the conviction of David Samson, formerly New Jersey attorney general and chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who resigned amid the scandal.

“The job of federal prosecutors is to investigate” the kind of wrongdoing the Supreme Court acknowledged in the case “fairly, honestly, and objectively, and to prosecute when appropriate,” Fishman said. “I did my job and my colleagues did theirs.”

Core Legal Question

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat who succeeded the term-limited Christie in January 2018, said at a Trenton news conference that the scandal “was a big dent in the reputation of our state, in the trust that our people have in the way the state works.” He added that “public trust is a hard thing, when you lose it, to get it back.”

The core legal question was whether Kelly and Baroni fraudulently obtained government property, as federal law requires. The Justice Department said the scheme met that requirement because it forced the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge, to pay thousands of dollars of overtime wages.

But Kagan said those wages were just an “incidental byproduct” of the plan. If those types of costs were enough, “the federal government could use the criminal law to enforce (its view of) integrity in broad swaths of state and local policy making,” she wrote.

The Justice Department also contended that the purpose of the scheme was to take control of physical property -- namely, the lanes leading to the bridge.

The ruling left room for Congress to revise federal corruption laws to cover more types of misconduct, legal experts said.

‘Traffic Problems’

“It is apparent that the current legal regime is insufficient to meet the societal problem of public corruption,” said Harry Sandick, a former federal prosecutor who now works at Patterson Belknap in New York. “The problem of corruption will only worsen until federal and state legislators take action.”

The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson River is the world’s busiest bridge, according to the Port Authority. It carries tens of millions of vehicles per year between New Jersey and Manhattan.

Kelly, who had been Christie’s deputy chief of staff, gained notoriety because of an email she sent before the closures saying, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

Prosecutors said Kelly worked with Baroni, then the deputy executive director of the Port Authority, to close the lanes under the guise of conducting a traffic study. David Wildstein, the mastermind of the scheme, pleaded guilty and testified against Kelly and Baroni. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the ruling would affect Wildstein, who was sentenced to probation.

The case is Kelly v. United States, 18-1059.

(Adds Christie, Murphy and Fishman statements)

--With assistance from David Voreacos and Elise Young.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Greg Stohr in Washington at gstohr@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Joe Sobczyk at jsobczyk@bloomberg.net

Laurie Asséo, Justin Blum

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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