In a Unanimous Decision, the Supreme Court Reverses New Jersey Bridgegate Convictions

The Supreme Court continued its clear commitment to trimming aggressive criminal prosecutions in high-profile cases by issuing a unanimous decision reversing the criminal convictions of two Bridgegate convictions in the New Jersey prosecutions of then-Governor Chris Christie’s Administration.

The case grew out of former Governor Chris Christie’s 2013 re-election campaign.  Bridget Kelly, Christie’s Deputy Chief of Staff, and William Baroni, the Deputy Executive Director of the Port Authority, along with David Wildstein, a cooperating witness who was a Port Authority officials, implemented a plan to reduce from three to one the number of reserved lanes reserved at the George Washington Bridge’s toll plaza for Fort Lee’s morning commuters.  The four-day retribution was carried out in response to Fort Lee’s Mayor decision to oppose Governor Christie’s re-election.

To disguise the real motive, Wildstein promoted a cover story that the lane realignment was for a traffic study.  To further this cover story, the three officials asked Port Authority traffic engineers to collect numbers on the effect of the changes.  They also agreed to pay an extra toll collector overtime so that the single lane would be open continuously.

The lane realignment resulted in significant traffic gridlock.  During this gridlock, firetrucks and emergency ambulance services were delayed and Fort Lee and surrounding communities suffered serious disruption.

After a lengthy trial, Baroni and Kelly were convicted of wire fraud, fraud on a federally funded program or entity (the Port Authority) and conspiracy.  The Third Circuit affirmed the convictions.  The Supreme Court reversed.

Justice Kagan wrote for the Court. In reversing the convictions, the Court ruled that the federal wire fraud statute makes it a crime to effect “any scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations or promises.  18 U. S. C. §1343.  Similarly, the federal program fraud statute bars “obtain[ing] by fraud” the “property” including money of federally funded program or entity.  18 U. S. C. §666(a)(1)(A). 

The critical requirement for both of these criminal statutes is the protection of property rights and not setting standards fopr good government for local and state officials.  The criminal statute does not bar deceptive or fraudulent practices unless the object of the fraud is to secure money or property.

On appeal, the government claimed that the scheme was intended to obtain the Port Authority’s money or property in two ways.  First, the government claimed that Baroni and Kelly sought to commandeer part of the Bridge itself by controlling its physical lanes.   Second, the government claimed that the defendants aimed to deprive the Port Authority of the costs of compensating the traffic engineers and back-up toll collectors.

The Court rejected each of these arguments – as to the first claim, the Court explained that the reallocation of the lanes between different drivers was a regulatory matter and did not involve obtaining property.  With respect to the second claim, the Court ruled that while government employees’ time and labor is a property interest, the prosecution failed to prove that such time and labor was the object of the fraud.  In this case, the Court noted that the time and labor of the Port Authority employees was a byproduct or incidental to their regulatory object.

The Court closed with an interesting observation:

As Kelley’s own lawyer acknowledged, this case involves an “abuse of power.” Tr. Of Oral Arg. 19.  For no reason other than political payback, 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 resident.  But not every corrupt act by state or local official is a federal crime.”

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