The Bridgegate scandal will head to the Supreme Court next week, bringing with it complicated legal questions about whether public officials are committing fraud by lying about their reasons for making policy decisions.
On Tuesday, the court will hear oral arguments in a case that centers around the convictions of a former aide to then New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and a Port Authority official for their role in a scheme to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge in 2013 to create traffic problems for the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., who had refused to endorse Christie.
Bridget Anne Kelly, a former deputy chief of staff to Christie who was ultimately sentenced to 13 months in prison, is appealing her conviction on various fraud charges stemming from the scandal. William Baroni, who was deputy executive director of the Port Authority at the time and was sentenced to 18 months in prison, is joining her appeal.
A jury convicted the two ex-officials after hearing evidence that they concocted a fake traffic study to justify the lane closures, which lasted for four days during the first week of school on the busiest bridge in the world. The scandal set off a political firestorm that led to Christie firing Baroni, Kelly and another official.
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld their fraud convictions and dismissed civil rights charges against them.
Kelly’s attorneys asked the Supreme Court to overturn the conviction and consider the question of whether a government official is committing fraud by lying about their motivation behind official policy moves.
Kelly maintains that she was a scapegoat for Christie and that the case against her was an example of prosecutorial overreach. In a brief phone interview with The Hill, she said she was honored that the Supreme Court decided in June of last year to review her case just days before she was supposed to report for her prison sentence.
“This has been an extraordinary time for my family and the people that were aware and knew [about the incident] and claimed that they didn’t, you know, are walking around with big jobs now,” Kelly said.
In a brief filed last year, her lawyers argued that the Third Circuit decision effectively allows officials to be convicted for “concealment of political motives for an otherwise-legitimate official act.”
“There is no way that could possibly be the law,” they wrote in the filing. “Taken seriously, it would allow any federal, state, or local official to be indicted based on nothing more than the (ubiquitous) allegation that she lied in claiming to act in the public interest.”
The Justice Department rejects their reasoning, arguing that the lane closures were not official acts because Baroni lacked the authority to order them and that the defendants had to concoct a fake traffic study to justify the move. And the government’s lawyers dismissed their theory that the circuit court decision could lead to illegitimate prosecutions of officials for normal policy decisions.
“In this case, however, the evidence established that Kelly and Baroni did not have the authority to decide when it was permissible to reduce the local access lanes,” the Justice Department’s filing reads. “To the contrary, it showed that the conspirators could realign the lanes only by lying about the existence of a traffic study, and about the Executive Director’s knowledge of the fictional study. By telling those lies, and diverting the agency’s resources to serve their own personal ends of inflicting massive four-day gridlock on Fort Lee, Kelly and Baroni committed fraud.”
Still, some are worried about the possibility that the Supreme Court could side with Kelly and Baroni and further narrow law enforcement’s ability to prosecute public officials.
In one decision from 2016, the court ruled unanimously to overturn the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) on corruption charges and significantly narrowed what could be defined as an official act in a bribery scheme.
The ruling derailed several ongoing corruption cases against government officials at the time, including a bribery case against Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.).
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) filed an amicus brief in the Bridgegate case late last year, noting that the Supreme Court has narrowed anti-corruption laws over the years and urging the justices to reverse that trend in this case. He argued that hampering federal law enforcement’s efforts to target corruption hurts the public by allowing government officials to operate in the interests of wealthy donors and other private benefactors.
Courtroom juries allow the public to play an important role in fighting corruption, Whitehouse, a former federal prosecutor and state attorney general, argued in his brief.
“The larger problem of what I would call wholesale corruption or industrial style corruption has been entirely removed from jury consideration,” he said in an interview with The Hill. “And that I think is a terrible mistake. When you’re dealing with political corruption, you want the decision maker to be as far away from the arena of political corruption as possible — and that is the jury.”
The senator also said that a jurisprudence that further narrows what constitutes corruption will lead to government officials and the public developing a skewed sense of what’s acceptable behavior from political leaders.
“In the same way that a fish may not be aware that it’s swimming in the water, because swimming in water is so much its natural state, I think we have become a little bit desensitized to the extent to which we are now swimming in corruption,” he said.
The justices could choose to grapple with those questions or find a middle ground that avoids them. Beyond the implications for Baroni and Kelly, their decision could potentially affect other public officials.
Kelly, though, said she is not focused on the broader potential implications of her case.
“Having to tell my kids and having to prepare for prison for something I didn’t do was hard enough,” she said. “I need to get through this before I can worry about the bigger picture.”