WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court was unanimous Thursday in tossing the convictions of two New Jersey political operatives who orchestrated the state’s notorious Bridgegate scandal.
Bridget Ann Kelly, who had been deputy chief of staff under Governor Chris Christie, and one of the governor’s top political appointees, Bill Baroni, were found guilty of shutting down two lanes of traffic leading to the George Washington Bridge, causing days of gridlock traffic in 2013 that hampered commuters, school buses and ambulances alike.
While the official justification for the lane closures was a traffic study, prosecutors said their true motive was an act of revenge against a Democratic mayor in the bridge-adjacent town of Fort Lee who declined to endorse Christie’s re-election.
Writing for the unanimous court, Justice Elena Kagan says there is no dispute that there was an abuse of power — as Kelly's own lawyer acknowledged.
"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," she wrote. "But not every corrupt act by state or local officials is a federal crime. Because the scheme here did not aim to obtain money or property, Baroni and Kelly could not have violated the federal-program fraud or wire fraud laws. We therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion."
Prosecutors argued that public resources were taken to create the ruse of a bogus traffic study.
“Kelly and Baroni’s conduct ... was federal fraud,” the government wrote in a brief to the justices. “They themselves approvingly cite cases upholding fraud convictions where officials have deceptively diverted public employee labor to their own use. That is exactly what Kelly and Baroni did in this case.”
This characterization landed with a thud, however, with Kagan writing that the lane closures were an exercise of regulatory power — an authority the high court already has said does not rise to the level of property fraud.
As for the labor of state employees, Kagan called this “just the incidental cost of that regulation, rather than itself an object of the officials’ scheme.”
“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. Under settled precedent, the officials could violate those laws only if an object of their dishonesty was to obtain Port Authority’s money or property.”
The star witness against Kelly and Baroni had been David Wildstein, a Nixon-esque political schemer who saw himself as Christie's enforcer. Like Baroni, Wildstein was a Christie appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the bistate agency that controls the George Washington Bridge, among other things.
Christie, it should be noted, was never charged as part of the scheme, though Wildstein and Kelly both testified during the trial that the governor had blessed the shutdown personally weeks before it happened. Bridgegate left its stain on Christie's political career, torpedoing his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
Baroni’s appellate counsel cheered the reversal of his client’s conviction.
“Bill is, as he has always said, not guilty,” Michael Levy, an attorney with the firm Sidley Austin, said in a statement. “Although the process of getting to this day has been an ordeal, Bill is heartened that the system ultimately worked, even as he recognizes how often it fails others who are less fortunate. At long last, Bill looks forward to moving on from this case and continuing his life of service.”
Kelly’s lawyer applauded the outcome as well.
“We are gratified by the court’s decision, which finally and unanimously adopted the position we had been advancing for years,” said Jacob Roth of the firm Jones Day.
Tweeting out his response Thursday, Christie slammed what he called “a 6 ½ year political crusade by U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman and the Obama Justice Department.”
“Despite being repeatedly told by numerous respected members of the bar during the investigation that he was inventing a federal crime, Paul Fishman proceeded, motivated by political partisanship and blind ambition that cost the taxpayers millions in legal fees and changed the course of history,” Christie wrote.
Ahead of the federal prosecution, New Jersey’s Democratic-controlled Legislature spent more than a million dollars on investigation costs, according to a 2018 report from The Associated Press.
The audit, published weeks after Third Circuit oral arguments in Kelly and Baroni's case, says Christie’s personal legal tab in connection to the bridge scandal cost taxpayers $15 million. That figure does not include either the $9.1 million that bought a report from the law firm Gibson Dunn clearing Christie of wrongdoing or the $2.1 million paid to the governor’s personal attorney, Christopher Wray, who would later leave the firm King & Spalding for a position as director of the FBI. Another of Christie's attorneys, Craig Carpenito, became the U.S. attorney in New Jersey when President Donald Trump cleaned house at the Justice Department after taking office.
The federal judge who presided over Kelly and Baroni's trial was publicly critical of some of the tactics Gibson Dunn used to investigate the lane closures, calling the firm’s method of overwriting interview notes “unorthodox,” stinking of “opacity and gamesmanship.”
Baroni had begun serving his 18-month sentence in April last year but a federal judge let him out on July 1 after the Supreme Court took up Kelly’s appeal. Thursday’s reversal seemed likely after oral arguments in January.
Himself a former federal prosecutor, Christie called it a disgrace that Baroni served any time and blamed the Obama administration “for permitting this misconduct to happen right under their noses.”
Trump tweeted a similar barb, sharpening the language employed by his onetime 2016 campaign surrogate to say Bridgegate was an “Obama DOJ scam.”
“The Democrats are getting caught doing very evil things and Republicans should take note,” the president wrote. “This was grave misconduct by the Obama Justice Department.”
No representative of the Trump Justice Department has returned a request for comment.
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