Supreme Court Throws Out Bridgegate Case
Last Thursday (May 7), the Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan announced in a 15-page ruling that the cases against New Jersey officials Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni—involved in the "Bridgegate" political scandal—were fraudulent and, therefore, would be throwing out the convictions.
“Baroni and Kelly used deception to reduce Fort Lee’s access lanes to the George Washington Bridge—and thereby jeopardized the safety of the town’s residents. But not every corrupt act by state or local officials is a federal crime,” said the court in an opinion written by Kagan.
“Because the scheme here did not aim to obtain money or property, Baroni and Kelly could not have violated the federal-program fraud or wire fraud laws.”
Back in 2013, reports claimed that former high-ranking official in the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Baroni, and former staffer of the New Jersey governor's office, Kelly, were involved in what was later referred to as the “Bridgegate” scandal, which tied up traffic in the town of Fort Lee, New Jersey—specifically on the George Washington Bridge—for several days.
The George Washington Bridge, a double-decked suspension bridge, connects Fort Lee with Manhattan, and carries more than 100,000,000 vehicles annually, making it the world’s busiest bridge. It is operated by the Port Authority, a joint body run by the states of New York and New Jersey.
The bridge’s 3,500-foot-long main span was the longest in the world when it was first built, in 1931. The lower level was opened in 1962.
During the shutdown, occurring from Sept. 9 through Sept. 13, 2013, traffic on the Fort Lee side of the bridge came to a standstill, with school buses delayed for hours and emergency vehicles unable to make progress in the gridlock. One woman whose ambulance was delayed by the traffic later died of cardiac arrest at the hospital, though her family declined to blame the traffic for her death.
At the time, officials said the lane closures were part of a traffic study on the bridge, but evidence uncovered after the closure indicated that Baroni and Kelly knowingly caused traffic issues in retribution for Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich’s refusal to endorse New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in his bid for re-election. Local officials in Fort Lee were reportedly kept in the dark about the shutdown.
A third conspirator, David Wildstein, pleaded guilty in 2015, and admitted that the closures were politically motivated. Wildstein, who said the shutdown was his idea, testified against Baroni and Kelly as part of a plea agreement.
Kelly was the author of a now-infamous email less than a month before the closures, simply reading, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Additionally, in text messages released after the fact, Kelly told Wildstein, “I feel badly about the kids I guess”; Wildstein replied, “They are the children of Buono voters,” referring to the Democratic candidate who was challenging Christie for the governor’s office that year.
Some have gone on to allege that Christie himself knew about the plot, but the governor was never charged, and has maintained that he did not know about it until afterward, when the incriminating emails were made public.
In November 2016, Baroni was convicted on seven counts of conspiracy and fraud-related charges in connection with the closure in September 2013 of several toll-booth lanes on the George Washington Bridge. On March 29, 2017, he was sentenced to two years in prison and 500 hours of community service.
Kelly was also convicted on the same charges in November, and was later sentenced to 18 months in prison, plus one year of probation and 500 hours of community service.
Around the same time as the sentencing, the Port Authority was reported to be undertaking a decade-long, $2 billion “Restoring the George” renovation project, including the removal of lead paint, rehabilitation of structural steel, replacement of suspender ropes, and rehabilitation of the main cable.
What’s Happening Now
Following her 13-month sentence, Kelly was reported to have remained free after her sentencing pending her appeal, while Baroni received an 18-month term and opted to report to prison. Baroni was later released on bail after the Supreme Court agreed to hear their case.
In January of this year, attorneys for both Kelly and Baroni argued that the government used federal anti-theft and anti-bribery statutes—Section 666 of Title 18 of the United States Code—to prosecute in relation to fraud and embezzlement. The statues are reported to have a provision which allows for use against public officials who misappropriate property for a purpose other than it is intended—in this case, the George Washington Bridge.
U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton, who presided over the trial, rejected the defense as there was no “legitimate justification” for the defendants’ conduct. The arguments and convictions were later largely upheld by the Court of Appeals for the Third Cicuit.
"If U. S. Attorneys could prosecute as property fraud every lie a state or local official tells...the result would be a sweeping expansion of federal criminal jurisdiction,” said the court. “The property fraud statutes do not countenance that outcome.”
Kagan added in delivering the opinion for the unanimous Court, that although the decision to abuse Port Authority resources jeopardized the safety of residents, not all corrupt acts conducted by state or local officials are federal crimes. Kagan continued that the aides' scheme did not aim to obtain money or property, and therefore Kelly and Baroni couldn’t be convicted for violating wire fraud laws.
“After years of investigations, indictments, trials, appeals and even prison, today the court has vindicated me and has made clear that I committed no crime,” said Baroni in a statement. “I have always said I was an innocent and today, the Supreme Court unanimously agreed.”
Christie concluded, "As many contended from the beginning, and as the court confirmed today, no federal crimes were ever committed in this matter by anyone in my administration. It is good for all involved that today justice has finally been done.”