The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday said it would hear an appeal from aides to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who were sentenced to prison in the political-retribution scandal known as Bridgegate.
Each was convicted by a jury in 2016 on charges that included conspiracy and fraud stemming from their role in a 2013 plot to cause days-long traffic jams near the George Washington Bridge in order to punish a local mayor for his refusal to endorse the Republican governor’s reelection bid.
Kelly, who was set to report to prison next month, remains free on bail. The Supreme Court’s next term begins in October.
Prosecutors argued that Kelly and Baroni had defrauded the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey of its resources in September 2013 by reducing the number of access lanes available to commuters in Fort Lee, Bergen County, from three to one.
Kelly and Baroni argued the lane realignment was part of a legitimate “traffic study,” but the government said that was a cover-up story.
It was Kelly who wrote the now-infamous email, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” to Port Authority official David Wildstein in August 2013. “Got it,” he replied, weeks before they executed the plan. Wildstein pleaded guilty in the case and was sentenced to probation.
The emails surfaced in January 2014 amid a legislative inquiry, catching the attention of federal prosecutors and engulfing Christie in a scandal that would help derail his White House prospects.
A federal appeals court in Philadelphia last year affirmed the fraud convictions against Kelly and Baroni and vacated others concerning civil rights violations.
The court found that the defendants altered the lane alignment without authorization “for the sole purpose of creating gridlock in Fort Lee."
“To execute their scheme, they conscripted fourteen Port Authority employees to do sham work in pursuit of no legitimate Port Authority aim,” the appeals panel wrote. “That defendants were politically motivated does not remove their intentional conduct from the ambit of the federal criminal law.”
The court’s opinion “is a playbook for how to prosecute political adversaries, and transforms the federal judiciary into a Ministry of Truth for every public official in the nation,” attorneys for Kelly wrote in a petition to the Supreme Court.
They said the fraud convictions were based on evidence that she concealed the political motives “for an otherwise legitimate official act.”
“All that separates a routine decision by a public official from a federal felony,” under the court ruling, “is a jury finding that her public policy justification for the decision was not really and truly her subjective reason for making it," Kelly’s attorneys wrote. “There is no way that could possibly be the law."
Kelly’s lawyers asked the Supreme Court to consider the following question: “Does a public official ‘defraud’ the government of its property by advancing a ‘public policy reason’ for an official decision that is not her subjective ‘real reason’ for making the decision?”
Baroni joined Kelly’s petition.
The Justice Department noted in court papers that evidence at trial showed the bridge scheme caused the Port Authority to pay toll workers thousands of dollars in overtime wages.
Whether Kelly and Baroni were “motivated by political animus toward the mayor of Fort Lee or by a desire for personal gain, their criminal liability would be unchanged," Justice Department lawyers wrote, “because their conduct constituted a ‘scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses.’”