U.S. Supreme Court sets date to hear Bridgegate case

Updated Nov 10, 2019

Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni, the former Christie administration officials convicted in the infamous scheme of political retribution that became known as Bridgegate, have a date with the U.S. Supreme Court.

The justices will hear their arguments to overturn the verdicts in the high-profile case that attorneys for the two have characterized as “bare-knuckle New Jersey politics, not graft,” on Tuesday, Jan. 14 at 10 a.m., according to the court’s docket.

It marks the final appeal in a bizarre case that began with the inexplicable shutdown of several toll lanes at the George Washington Bridge six years ago and soon reached deep into the inner circle of former Gov. Chris Christie.

Kelly, a former deputy chief of staff to Christie, and Baroni, who the governor appointed as the deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, were found guilty in November 2016 of plotting to shut down two of three local access lanes of the bridge in September 2013, as part of a political vendetta intended to cause massive traffic tie-ups in Fort Lee.

According to federal prosecutors, the deliberate gridlock was intended to send a message to Mayor Mark Sokolich, after the Democratic mayor decided not to endorse Christie, a Republican, during his 2013 re-election bid. Christie campaign officials were trying to show wide-spread bipartisan support for the governor in advance of an expected 2016 presidential bid.

Christie was never charged with any wrongdoing and denied any knowledge of the plan, although the incident cast a dark shadow over his failed run for president.

The scheme at the world’s busiest bridge was orchestrated by David Wildstein, a Port Authority political appointee who pleaded guilty and became a prosecution witness against Baroni and Kelly, who were both found guilty and sentenced to prison. In return for his cooperation, Wildstein received probation.

Kelly and Baroni sought to reverse their convictions before the U.S. Court of Appeals, but a three-judge panel rebuked the two in a harsh opinion that concluded there was “no legitimate justification” for their conduct.

In June, however, the Supreme Court — to the surprise of many — agreed to hear the case.

At issue for the court is this question: Does a public official “defraud” the government of its property by advancing a “public policy reason” for an official decision that is not the “real reason” for making the decision? In other words, was it fraud for Kelly and Baroni to conceal the real reason why the lanes at the George Washington Bridge were shut down to motorists?

In briefs filed with the high court, attorneys for Kelly argued that the prosecution criminalized what they called routine political behavior, and said that the ordinary anti-theft and anti-bribery statue statutes used in the case had never before been used to pursue political corruption.

“The alleged conduct here was petty, insensitive, and ill-advised. But in our system, political abuses of power are addressed politically,” wrote attorneys for Kelly. “Prosecutors may try to supplement political blowback with criminal sanctions, especially when public anger reaches a vitriolic peak. But the role of the courts is to ensure that this anger is channeled consistent with the rule of law — to ensure fairness for these defendants and, even more importantly, to preclude mischief going forward.”

Kelly was the author of the “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email, sent to Wildstein shortly before the lane closures at the bridge. It was a message that prosecutors pointed to as a smoking gun in the case and was a key piece of evidence used against her. She had testified that she was told the lane closures were part of a legitimate traffic study.

Baroni’s attorneys in their briefs called Bridgegate “a case of bare-knuckle New Jersey politics, not graft.” They said if the government could convict a public official of fraudulently depriving a public agency of money or property simply for employing his agency’s resources “with a concealed political motive,” then the federal government will have free rein to charge and convict officials for all manner of political deals, favors, and rebukes, unless those officials are brutally candid about their true political motivations.

“Given the hyper-partisan tone of our nation’s current political discourse, where prominent voices on both sides now regularly call for the prosecution of political adversaries, that threat is not one this court should abide,” they wrote.

Attorneys for both also maintained that the convictions were at odds with past Supreme Court’s rulings, citing cases involving former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling and former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, which limited the government’s latitude in bringing corruption cases.

Prosecutors have argued that the conduct of Kelly and Baroni constituted a scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, and have argued the convictions should stand.

Their final briefs before the court are not scheduled to be filed until later this month.

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