WASHINGTON — The New Jersey political revenge plot known as Bridgegate came before the highest court in the land on Tuesday, and several justices expressed skepticism that onetime allies of former Gov. Chris Christie had committed federal crimes in the scandal.
Three years after two Christie allies were convicted, and even after one of them spent time in prison, the pair asked the high court to overturn the verdict and declare they committed no crime. Surprisingly, Christie himself appeared at Tuesday’s hearing.
Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, his top executive appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, were found guilty of federal charges including conspiracy and fraud in 2016.
The charges stemmed from their involvement in a 2013 scheme to reduce the number of access lanes available in Fort Lee, N.J., to commuters approaching the George Washington Bridge from three to one, gridlocking traffic in the town for days. Their goal was to punish the town’s mayor for his refusal to endorse Christie’s reelection campaign, according to evidence from the trial. In order to execute the scheme, the jury found, the defendants and Port Authority official David Wildstein created a bogus story that they were conducting a traffic study.
One of the central questions before the court Tuesday was whether Kelly and Baroni had defrauded the government by misusing the resources of a federally funded agency.
Some of the justices seemed sympathetic to the defense on that issue. Even if Kelly and Baroni “commandeered the lanes” for their desired ends, the roads were “still being used for public purposes,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said during an hour-long oral argument.
In addition, Roberts added, the “object” of the scheme wasn’t to realign the lanes — it was to “cause traffic jams.”
In this view, some of the justices suggested, it’s hard to see how the government was “deprived” of its property, as the jury found.
A decision in the case is expected by the end of June. A decision favorable to the defendants would follow a two-decade long trend in which the high court has narrowed the scope of public corruption prosecutions. In 2016, the court overturned the bribery conviction of Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, a ruling that set a higher bar for public corruption prosecutions involving allegations that an official performed favors in exchange for things of value.
The bridge scandal initially erupted in January 2014 — just months after Republican Christie won a landslide reelection in the generally blue state — when emails surfaced linking the bridge plot to the governor’s office. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote in an August 2013 email to Wildstein. “Got it,” he replied. The ensuing outrage and investigations eventually helped sink Christie’s 2016 presidential ambitions.
Christie has long denied knowledge of the plot. Wildstein testified at trial that he and Baroni had bragged to Christie about “tremendous” traffic problems in Fort Lee while the chaos was unfolding.
On Tuesday, the court also questioned the government’s contention that Baroni lacked the authority to realign the lanes. At trial, prosecutors alleged that the defendants promoted the sham traffic study as a means to trick career Port Authority officials to carry out the scheme. Through this deception, prosecutors alleged, Kelly and Baroni were able to hijack Port Authority resources for their illegitimate plot.
It was that lie about the traffic study that triggered the federal fraud statute, Eric J. Feigin, an attorney for the government, told the court Tuesday. He said the deception showed that the defendants couldn’t otherwise implement their plan.
But some of the justices suggested the prosecution had failed to prove Baroni lacked the authority to reduce the lanes available to Fort Lee. And even the government conceded that if Baroni did have that authority, he could not have committed property fraud.
“I see no reason to believe the jury made any such finding” that Baroni lacked the authority to realign the lanes, said Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.
Alito, a former U.S. attorney in New Jersey, said the mere fact of the deception did not prove that Baroni lacked the authority. For example, a public official who hires his brother-in-law might not be truthful about his reasons for doing so. But that doesn’t mean the official lacked the power to make that decision, Alito said.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer raised another concern: that affirming the convictions would undermine the high court’s previous rulings that limited the prosecution of “honest services fraud" to cases involving bribes and kickbacks.
“What we have here is an abuse of power, a political abuse of power" — not a federal crime, Kelly’s attorney Yaakov M. Roth told the justices.
Kelly and Baroni were convicted on seven counts each in 2016. After a three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Philadelphia affirmed most of the convictions in 2018, a judge sentenced Kelly to 13 months in prison and Baroni to 18 months. By the time the Supreme Court agreed last year to hear their appeal, Baroni had already served three months. Wildstein pleaded guilty and cooperated with the government.
Both Kelly and Baroni appeared in the courtroom Tuesday, as did Christie. The former governor and his wife, Mary Pat, sat directly in front of Kelly and her lawyers. Christie didn’t talk to reporters after the hearing.
Outside the courthouse, Kelly, a divorced mother of four, told reporters she was “overwhelmed and grateful” that the justices had agreed to hear the case, “and I am honored to be here today.”
“Much is yet to be determined, but today is about hope and justice,” she said. “I remain optimistic that both will triumph and our lives can return to normal.”
After Kelly was sentenced last April, she lashed out at Christie, calling him a “bully” and warning that the truth would be “unescapable” for the former governor, "regardless of lucrative television deals or even future campaigns.”