- The Supreme Court has unanimously reversed the convictions of two New Jersey officials in the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal, known as “Bridgegate.”
- The scandal centres around the efforts of two top officials linked to then New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to shut down a number of lanes on the George Washington Bridge reserved for morning commuters from Fort Lee, New Jersey, after the town’s mayor refused to support Christie’s reelection bid.
- Bridget Anne Kelly, then Christie’s deputy chief of staff, and William Baroni, then the Port Authority Deputy Executive Director, were both convicted on several counts of conspiracy and fraud.
- The Supreme Court acknowledged that Kelly, Baroni, and another Port Authority official shut down the bridge lanes as political retaliation and devised a “cover story” to shield their actions.
- However, the high court ruled that “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.”
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The Supreme Court has unanimously overturned the convictions of two New Jersey officials involved in the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal, or “Bridgegate.”
The scandal centres around the efforts of two top aides to then New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to shut down a number of lanes on the George Washington Bridge reserved for morning commuters from Fort Lee, New Jersey. The aides – Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and the Port Authority officials William Baroni and David Wildstein – shut down the lanes after Fort Lee’s mayor refused to back Christie’s reelection campaign that year.
Wildstein pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud and conspiracy against civil rights after the US attorney’s office for the District of New Jersey began investigating the matter in 2015. Prosecutors later returned an indictment charging Baroni and Kelly with multiple counts of conspiracy and wire fraud. Both aides were convicted on all counts after the trial concluded in November 2016.
The Supreme Court acknowledged in its unanimous opinion that Kelly, Baroni, and Wildstein shut down the bridge lanes as political retaliation against Fort Lee’s mayor and devised a “cover story” to shield their actions.
However, the high court ruled that “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.”
The court said that under federal law, New Jersey prosecutors had to prove the two aides were guilty of wire fraud by proving they “engaged in deception” and that “an object of their fraud was money or property.”
Prosecutors argued Baroni and Kelly’s actions met those stipulations because they “sought to commandeer part of the Bridge itself by taking control of its physical lanes” and because the defendants “aimed to deprive the Port Authority of the costs of compensating the traffic engineers and back-up toll collectors.”
However, the Supreme Court ruled that neither of those arguments hold merit because Baroni and Kelly’s actions were an “exercise of regulartory power – a reallocation of the lanes between different groups of drivers.”
“The evidence the jury heard no doubt shows wrongdoing-deception, corruption, abuse of power,” Associate Justice Elena Kagan wrote in delivering the unanimous opinion of the court. “But the federal fraud statutes at issue do not criminalise all such conduct.”
“The realignment of the toll lanes was an exercise of regulatory power-something this Court has already held fails to meet the statutes’ property requirement,” Kagan wrote. “And the employees’ labour was just the incidental cost of that regulation, rather than itself an object of the officials’ scheme. We therefore reverse the convictions.”
The Supreme Court agreed to take up the Bridgegate case in the 2019 term, and while many of the justices questioned Baroni and Kelly’s motivations during oral arguments, they also doubted their actions met the threshold for criminal convictions.
In January, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that Baroni was authorised to regulate lane usage on the bridge. And Justice Stephen Breyer argued that Baroni’s actions did not stop the public from using the bridge altogether.
“It was just a problem getting there – which was quite a problem, I grant you,” Breyer said.
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