The nation’s highest court on Thursday unanimously overturned the convictions of two onetime allies of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who played keys roles in the infamous “Bridgegate” case.
Bridget Ann Kelly and Bill Baroni didn’t defraud the government of its “property” by closing two local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge over three days in September 2013 as retribution against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled.
Kelly and Baroni “could not have violated the federal-program fraud or wire fraud laws” because the plan wasn't intended to obtain money or property, Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court.
“If U.S. attorneys could prosecute as property fraud every lie a state or local official tells in making such a decision," Kagan wrote, the result would be "sweeping expansion of federal criminal jurisdiction."
“In effect, the federal government could use the criminal law to enforce (its view of) integrity in broad swaths of state and local policymaking,” she added.
The justices didn’t condone the former officials’ behavior – just that it couldn’t legally be prosecuted under current federal corruption laws, Kagan emphasized.
“As Kelly’s own lawyer acknowledged, this case involves an ‘abuse of power,’ " she wrote. “The evidence the jury heard no doubt shows wrongdoing—deception, corruption, abuse of power. 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 the Port Authority’s money or property.”
The Supreme Court court’s decision reverses a previous ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia that upheld most of the convictions against Baroni and Kelly.
Federal jurors in 2016 initially found Kelly, the former deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs in Christie’s office, and Baroni, formerly the deputy executive director of the Port Authority, guilty for what became a massive traffic jam at the world’s busiest motor vehicle bridge, one that gridlocked the streets of Fort Lee.
Also involved was David Wildstein, a former Port Authority official who pleaded guilty and testified against them in exchange for three years probation.
It was all part of a political retribution scheme intended to punish Sokolich, a Democrat, who had refused to endorse the Republican Christie for re-election as New Jersey governor.
A federal judge originally sentenced Kelly to 18 months, which was reduced to 13 months following the appeals court ruling.
Baroni, meanwhile, had his two-year sentence cut to 18 months following the 3rd Circuit ruling.
Baroni had already served nearly three months in federal prison last year and Kelly was preparing to go to prison when the nation’s highest court agreed to hear their appeal.
The Justice Department argued that no one involved in the scandal had the authority to realign the bridge lanes, so they lied about a bogus traffic study in order to hijack the resources to pull off the stunt.
Attorneys for Kelly and Baroni, in turn, accused the government of trying to criminalize “routine” political behavior – what they called “a case of bare-knuckle New Jersey politics, not graft.”
Baroni actually did have the authority to change the lanes in his role as a Christie-appointed deputy executive director of the Port Authority, which operates the bridge, they argued.
Kelly, a mother of four, said the Supreme Court “gave me back my name and began to reverse the six-and-a-half-year nightmare that has become my life.”
Kelly said she wanted “nothing more than to hug my children knowing they will have their mom with them always.”
Christie, who wasn’t charged in the case, repeatedly denied any knowledge of the scheme.
“As I have said before, I had no knowledge of this scheme prior to or during these lane realignments, and had no role in authorizing them,” he said in a statement last year. “No credible evidence was ever presented to contradict that fact. Anything said to the contrary is simply untrue.”
It all began after Kelly confirmed in August 2013 that Sokolich wouldn’t be endorsing Christie for re-election in November 2013.
Baroni, Kelly, and Wildstein “decided to punish the mayor by deliberately causing significant traffic problems in Fort Lee under the false pretense of a traffic study,” Attorney for the United States Mark Coyne previously said.
From the morning of Sept. 9 to Sept. 13, 2013, “they caused the local access lanes to be reduced so that only one toll booth, instead of the usual three, was accessible to the approach to the bridge for local traffic traveling through Fort Lee,” Coyne said.
“To maximize the congestion and the punitive impact on Mayor Sokolich, Baroni, Kelly and Wildstein caused these lane and toll booth reductions to start on the first day of the school year without any advance notice to Mayor Sokolich, the Fort Lee chief of police or borough residents,” he said.
“The lane and toll booth reductions resulted in significant traffic in Fort Lee, for motorists intending to access the George Washington Bridge from local lanes and for residents, whose streets were choked with traffic,” Coyne said.
“The conspirators agreed to disregard any inquiries from Mayor Sokolich and other Fort Lee officials about the lane and toll booth reductions,” he added. “They purposely ignored communications from Mayor Sokolich, including his pleas for help, requests for information, and repeated warnings about the increased risks to public safety.”
On Sept. 9, Coyne said, Wildstein sent an email to Baroni reiterating that he should maintain “radio silence” toward the mayor.
On Sept. 12, Baroni “instructed a Port Authority employee through coded language that the employee should not contact Mayor Sokolich,” he said.
The three conspirators “concocted and promoted a sham story that the lane reductions were for a traffic study…so they could use Port Authority property, including the time and services of unwitting Port Authority personnel and other resources, to implement the lane and toll booth reductions and conceal their true punitive purpose,” Coyne said.
With Kelly’s and Wildstein’s knowledge, Baroni then lied about it state Assembly Transportation, Public Works, and Independent Authorities Committee, he said.
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