Justices grapple with 'Bridgegate' convictions

Justices grapple with 'Bridgegate' convictions
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The Supreme Court on Tuesday grappled with the convictions of two former New Jersey government officials over their roles in the so-called 2013 Bridgegate scandal that helped torpedo former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) political fortunes.

Christie showed up for the oral arguments Tuesday to watch attorneys for his former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and Bill Baroni, the former Port Authority deputy executive director, make their case to the justices.

The two were convicted of fraud charges for scheming to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge, the busiest bridge in the world, during the first week of the school year in order to create a traffic jam to retaliate against a local mayor who had refused to endorse Christie.

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Kelly and Baroni are asking the court to decide whether a public official lying about their motive for taking an official action amounts to fraud. The government argued that the two were not authorized to order the lane closures and had to lie about conducting a traffic study in order to justify their move.

The justices appeared conflicted about how to handle the case. The court has limited the ability of federal prosecutors to bring corruption cases over the years and on Tuesday both liberal and conservative justices seemed skeptical that they could square this case with past jurisprudence.

“It’s easy to make up cases that there is a lie in, and that’s my problem,” Justice Stephen Breyer, a Clinton appointee, told the government’s lawyer.

“Isn’t it often the case that someone who has the authority to do something lies about their reason for doing it?” Justice Samuel AlitoSamuel AlitoFormer senior Senate GOP aide says Republicans should call witnesses On The Trail: Why 2020 is the most important election in our lifetime Supreme Court sharply divided over state aid for religious schools MORE, a George W. Bush appointee, added.

Eric Feigin, a deputy solicitor general, argued that the two did not have the authority to order the lane closures, so the case was not just a matter of deciding whether a public official is committing fraud by lying about regular policy decisions.

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“The defendants in this case committed fraud by telling a lie to take control over the physical access lanes to the George Washington Bridge and the employee resources necessary to realign them,” Feigin said. “Unless they lied about the existence of a Port Authority traffic study, none of them had the power to direct those resources and realign the lanes.

“Their actions in this case were fraud in just the same way that it would be fraud for someone with no connection to the Port Authority to impersonate Port Authority supervisors and order Port Authority employees to realign Port Authority lanes,” he added.

Kelly and Baroni were convicted by a jury and their fraud convictions were upheld by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals last year. They were sentenced to 13 months and 18 months in prison respectively. A third official, former Port Authority executive David Wildstein, pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy and was sentenced to three years of probation.

Kelly and Baroni contend that Baroni did have the authority to order the lane closures, and so their actions could not have amounted to fraud.

Kelly’s attorney, Yaakov Moshe Roth, warned the justices on Tuesday that letting the Third Circuit’s decision stand could lead to “criminalizing ulterior motives even without bribes or kickbacks” for public officials. And in this case, he argued, the lane closures were not intended to fraudulently steal anything from the government. 

“You owe a toll and you lie to evade paying the toll, you have cheated the government out of property that it's owed,” Roth said, posing a hypothetical. “But if what you're doing is making a regulatory decision like allocating public resources among public uses ... that is not obtaining property.”

Kelly and Baroni were both fired by Christie in the wake of the scandal and maintain that they were set up as scapegoats by the former governor and 2016 Republican presidential candidate.

“This has been an extraordinary time for my family and the people that were aware and knew and claimed that they didn't, you know, are walking around with big jobs now,” Kelly told The Hill last week.

Updated at 1:20 p.m.