WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court cast doubt Tuesday on the Bridgegate convictions of two political operatives found to have orchestrated gridlock New Jersey traffic as partisan payback in the name of then-Governor Chris Christie.
Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni were convicted of fraud and conspiracy for a 2013 scheme where two lanes connecting the city of Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge were shut down for a supposed traffic study.
As New Jersey commuters, schoolchildren and emergency vehicles suffered for days in the ensuing bottleneck, text messages and emails came to light showing that several aides of the governor had sought to exact political payback against the Democrat mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing the Republican Christie’s re-election.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote in one particularly incriminating missive.
Prosecutors painted the scandal as an abuse of authority, but Justice Samuel Alito emphasized at oral arguments this morning that it is not automatically a fraud for governmental officials to disguise their true motive for an action falling under their authority.
“Isn’t it often the case that somebody who has the authority to do something may lie about why the person is doing the thing because, if the real reason was exposed, it would cause a furor, people would be angry, but that doesn’t show the person doesn’t have the authority to do it,” asked Alito, the only member of the court from New Jersey.
Deputy U.S. Solicitor General Eric Feigin pushed back that it was Kelly and Baroni’s political authority that empowered them to lie to the agency that controls the bridge, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, about their motives for closing the lanes.
Feigin said this same lie caused the misuse of public funds for their benefit: an extra toll collector was required to stand duty throughout the study.
Baroni and Kelly were convicted after a third defendant, David Wildstein, pleaded guilty and testified against them. Feigin emphasized the importance of Wildstein’s evidence.
“This isn’t a lie about why they’re doing it, he said. “This is a lie that Wildstein directly testified that they needed to tell, in order to get the resources that they needed. It was clearly important to the George Washington Bridge manager and the manager of tunnels, bridges and terminals. This was something the executive director knew about.”
Kelly’s attorney, Jacob Roth with Jones Day, argued that an official must divert actual funds for personal use to defraud the government but that federal law does not prohibit an individual from manipulating property with a lie.
As example, Roth described a hypothetical where the state used snowplows for public roads, and those plows began at the governor of that state’s house. This action alone would not constitute property fraud — even if there was a clear benefit to that one employee, he said. If, however, an individual tricked employees into plowing private driveways, then that individual had taken property from the government.
Roth said the difference between these two actions is the scheme to obtain the property, which in this case was to influence regulatory decision making.
Justice Sonya Sotomayor pushed back here.
“I’m sorry, I thought the scheme was to make life difficult for Fort Lee,” she said. “If that was the scheme, and you defrauded the use of government property to accomplish your goal, why is that any different than taking the maintenance worker to plow your road, your private street?”
“Yeah,” Roth replied. “The scheme was to do that through a regulatory decision, right, by realigning the lanes from one public use to another public use. So, what the objection is to the conduct here is an objection to the purpose, not the objective use of the property. That’s the difference.”
Michael Levy, an attorney for Baroni with Sidley Austin, said a public official acting politically doesn’t commit fraud by issuing a regulatory decision — like the decision used to close two lanes of traffic.
Levy also denied that Baroni issued a fraudulent statement in directing Wildstein, a fellow Port Authority official, to close the traffic lanes because he “would like to know what would happen.”
Even the admission of not having a reason for conducting such a study would fall under Baroni’s authority as the deputy executive director of Port Authority, Levy said.
“Suppose Mr. Baroni had said, ‘I’m giving you no reason at all,’ or suppose Mr. Baroni had said, ‘we’re going to do a traffic study, but it’s going to be a sham traffic study.’ Would he still have authority?” Justice Elena Kagan said.
“Certainly, the first one,” Levy said. “He certainly had at any point, the discretion to say, as somebody had done very early on in creating these traffic lanes. … At any point in time could have said, ‘I think they should have only two or one.’ And that was fully within his authority.”
Though trial testimony would later contradict this, Christie denied knowing about the plan ahead of time or as it was unfolding. He was never prosecuted in connection to the scandal, but it did derail his 2016 presidential ambitions.
Christie appeared in court Tuesday along with Baroni and Kelly, his former deputy chief of staff.