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 city’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.”
Theruling 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.
“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’s lawyer, Michael Levy, said his client “is, as he has always said, not guilty.”
“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,” Levy said in an emailed statement.
Justice Department spokeswoman Brianna Herlihy said the department had no comment on the ruling.
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 Hudson River span 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.
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.
The case is Kelly v. United States, 18-1059.
— With assistance by David Voreacos
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