Chris Christie is no longer governor of New Jersey, but the political scandal that helped derail his bid for the White House hasn't gone away.
Four and a half years after Christie loyalists caused notorious traffic jams near the George Washington Bridge, lawyers are still debating whether the bizarre scheme crossed the line from political retribution to federal crime. A class-action lawsuit is also pending.
On Tuesday, attorneys for two of the former Christie allies who executed the plot appeared before a three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Philadelphia in a bid to toss the convictions and spare their clients from prison.
Christie, who completed his second term in January, has moved on. The former Republican presidential hopeful now collects a check from ABC News, where he's an analyst, and has commissioned an Australian artist to paint his official portrait — to the tune of $85,000 in taxpayer money.
His personal attorney in the affair known as Bridgegate, Christopher A. Wray, has jumped to a new controversy as director of the FBI. Another former Christie attorney, Craig Carpenito, who defended the governor against a citizen's complaint of official misconduct, is now the U.S. attorney for the district of New Jersey.
David Wildstein, the former Christie ally turned government star witness, pleaded guilty in 2015 and was sentenced last year to three years of probation. He lives in Florida with his family and regularly breaks news on New Jersey politics on a website — with the occasional roast of his former political patron. Wildstein teamed up in the venture with Ken Kurson, a close associate of Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser. Another top Christie aide whose name came up repeatedly at trial, former campaign manager Bill Stepien, works in the White House as Trump's political director.
And yet on Tuesday, there were Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly, spending another day in court.
Baroni, former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff, were convicted in November 2016 of conspiracy, obtaining by fraud and misusing Port Authority resources, wire fraud, and civil rights violations.
A federal judge in Newark sentenced Baroni to two years in prison, and Kelly, to 18 months. They are free on bail while they appeal.
Their chief offense, according to prosecutors: reducing access lanes available to Fort Lee, Bergen County, residents from three to one, snarling traffic near the world's busiest bridge and causing four days of gridlock in September 2013. Their goal: to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for his refusal to endorse Christie's reelection campaign that year.
Baroni, Kelly, and Wildstein conspired to cover up the scheme by saying the lane reductions were part of a "traffic study," the jury found.
Even as the three appellate judges probed the various legal arguments for two hours Tuesday morning, they couldn't help but raise the peculiar nature of the case.
If the Christie aides wanted to send a political message to the mayor, mused Judge Thomas L. Ambro, why not cause traffic jams for just one day, instead of four? "You might not have been here today if this had just gone on for one day," he said, noting that by then the traffic had already generated publicity.
"I don't really know the answer to the question," replied Yaakov Roth, an attorney for Kelly.
"It's like, overkill on overkill," Ambro added as Baroni, dressed in a crisp blue suit, sat attentively a couple rows back from the defense table. (The three prosecutors who tried the case observed the proceeding from the back of courtroom.)
The whole thing may have been stupid, defense attorneys conceded, but it wasn't a crime.
"From a moral perspective, I think it would be fair for your honors or the jury… to conclude that that was bad, that it was wrongful, that it was unjustifiable," Michael A. Levy, an attorney for Baroni, told the panel. "That is not the standard for a federal crime, however."
Christie's approval ratings plummeted, and the principal actors were fired, Levy noted. "The normal, ordinary political process took hold," he said.
Defense attorneys challenged the government's case on several legal fronts. First, they said, there isn't a clearly established constitutional right to intrastate travel. Thus, Baroni and Kelly didn't violate Fort Lee residents' civil rights, the attorneys said. Plus, the bridge was never closed. Instead, the lanes were realigned such that Fort Lee residents could only access one toll booth; two other lanes that had historically been dedicated to Fort Lee were now available to motorists approaching the bridge from a different highway.
Defense attorneys also argued that Baroni and Kelly didn't misapply Port Authority resources for unauthorized use. As deputy executive director, Baroni had the authority to realign the lanes, Levy said. And they didn't misapply the property for personal use — the lanes were simply diverted to a different set of motorists.
That Baroni and Kelly may have been motivated by politics instead of serving the public interest doesn't mean they committed a crime, their lawyers said, arguing their actions were similar to that of a mayor who used city resources to pave streets in his neighborhood.
What would rise to a crime, Roth said, was if that same mayor used city resources to pave his private driveway. The prosecution's interpretation of the law would create an "all-purpose political ethics code for every state and local official in the country," Roth said.
At least one of the judges, Ambro, expressed skepticism that Baroni had the authority to close the lanes. "Nobody was authorized" to do that, Ambro said, citing trial testimony.
Bruce P. Keller, an assistant U.S. attorney, said the defendants missed the point. Kelly and Baroni had to deceive subordinates and the public about the true purpose of the lane closures to carry out their mission, Keller said.
The purported traffic study "was an absolute fraud used to obtain the property of the Port Authority," he said.
Christie, for his part, doesn't think his former aides should go to prison. "Listen, I think what they did was stupid and I think they deserve to be fired," he said in a January interview with NJTV. "And I think they deserve to not get an opportunity to work in government again. But, I don't think either one of them belong in jail…this wasn't a crime."