The Supreme Court tossed the federal government’s case in the infamous “Bridgegate” scandal, vacating convictions of two allies of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Politico reports.
In a unanimous ruling issued Thursday that further chips away at the nation’s public corruption laws, the justices concluded that defendants Bridget Ann Kelly and Bill Baroni did not defraud the government of its “property” by closing off two local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge over three days in September 2013.
The traffic-snarling political stunt was aimed at punishing a Democratic mayor who had refused to endorse Christie, a Republican, for re-election.
Justice Elena Kagan said the decisions Kelly and Baroni made — and their less-than-candid explanations for them — could not be prosecuted as fraud under federal law.
“If U. S. Attorneys could prosecute as property fraud every lie a state or local official tells in making such a decision, the result would be…’a sweeping expansion of federal criminal jurisdiction,’” Kagan wrote.
“In effect, the Federal Government could use the criminal law to enforce (its view of) integrity in broad swaths of state and local policymaking. The property fraud statutes do not countenance that outcome.”
Kagan said the high court was not blessing the former officials’ conduct, only declaring that it was beyond the reach of federal corruption laws.
“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.”
The decision overturned a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia that upheld most of the counts against Baroni and Kelly.
Baroni, who was Christie’s deputy executive director at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Kelly, who was Christie’s deputy chief of staff, were convicted in 2016. They worked with David Wildstein, a former Port Authority official who pleaded guilty and testified against them to orchestrate the political retribution scheme.
“It shouldn’t have taken an action by the U.S. Supreme Court to say there was no crime committed. We all knew that,” Bill Palatucci, a longtime friend and adviser to Christie, said. Paul Fishman, the former U.S. Attorney for New Jersey who prosecuted the case, “is going to be on the hot seat now,” Palatucci said.
The decision extends a line of rulings that have reduced the power of federal prosecutors to go after corruption.
It came nearly four years after the high court overturned the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell on the grounds prosecutors had wrongly mixed evidence of potentially illegal acts aimed at influencing government actions with evidence about routine courtesies.