Washington — New Jersey officials at the center of the 2013 “Bridgegate” scandal made their case before the nation’s highest court Tuesday, as the justices weighed whether convictions of the two former aides to ex-Governor Chris Christie for their involvement in the scandal should stand.
The case before the Supreme Court involves Bridget Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The two, with the assistance of a third official, ordered the closure of lanes to the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee, New Jersey, in an act of political retaliation against the town’s mayor that caused nightmarish traffic delays for several days.
In one instance, volunteer ambulance attendants had to leave their vehicle and respond to an emergency call on foot, according to court filings.
The justices were tasked with considering whether the actions of Kelly and Baroni constituted property fraud under federal statutes since they lied to reallocate the bridge lanes when they lacked authorization to change traffic patterns.
Prosecutors said Kelly and Baroni schemed to close lanes by concocting a fictitious traffic study as justification for the lane realignment. The closures were actually meant to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, who had declined to endorse Christie’s 2013 reelection bid.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote in an email about the change in traffic flow.
Kelly and Baroni were convicted by a federal jury in 2016 on property fraud and civil rights charges, the latter of which were tossed out by a federal appeals court. Kelly was sentenced to 13 months in prison and Baroni received 18 months. Christie was not charged in the scandal, which came to be known as “Bridgegate,” and said he was not involved. But in its wake, his approval ratings plummeted and his prospects in the 2016 Republican presidential race were severely diminished.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the convictions, ruling that the two aides defrauded the Port Authority of its property by lying about the fake traffic study to justify the traffic realignment.
Kelly appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, and the high court agreed to take up the case last year.
During oral arguments Tuesday, Chief Justice John Roberts noted the lanes altered by the two former aides were “still being used for public purposes.”
“If other people want to use the highway to get to Fort Lee, they can,” he said. “They have nothing to do with the scheme at all.”
Kelly’s attorneys argue in filings the lower court’s decision upholding the convictions adopts an “astoundingly expansive theory of criminal fraud,” under which any public official could be indicted for fraud “on nothing more than the (ubiquitous) allegation that she lied in claiming to act in the public interest.”
“It would undo, in one fell swoop, three decades of this court’s precedents rejecting attempts to enforce ‘honest government’ through vague federal criminal statutes,” they said. “It would transform the judiciary into a Ministry of Truth for every public official in the nation. And it would readily enable partisans not just to harangue and harass political opponents — but to prosecute and jail them.”
A ruling from the Supreme Court allowing the convictions to stand, Kelly’s lawyers warn, could lead to charges against a staffer who requests an environmental review to please a lobbying group but doesn’t intend to listen to the recommendations or a cabinet secretary who taps a friend to a position.
Justice Stephen Breyer questioned whether it would be a crime for a snowplow operator to prioritize clearing the street of a town’s mayor first.
“Now, that is not a good thing to do. It is really undesirable,” he said. “And maybe it should be a crime. But 30 years in prison? That, I’m not sure.”
The Justice Department argues the lower court was correct when it determined Kelly and Baroni committed fraud when they lied about the traffic study to “hijack Port Authority resources” to alter the traffic flow.
“The scheme in this case required the Port Authority to pay additional wages, redirected the value of the Port Authority’s scheduled wage payments, and divested the Port Authority of control of the George Washington Bridge, all to the benefit of Kelly and Baroni, who used those Port Authority resources to create traffic jams and a cover-up,” the Justice Department said. “The scheme was effectuated by means of a lie — the claim of a traffic study that did not in fact exist — without which Baroni would not have been able to turn the agency’s resources from helping the public to harming it.”
Neither Kelly nor Baroni, prosecutors say, dispute “that a public official commits fraud when he lies to divert agency resources that he could not otherwise control.”
A decision from the Supreme Court is expected by the end of June.