Was the revenge plot that halted New Jersey traffic after a mayor snubbed the governor a federal crime, or just unseemly politics?
The U.S. Supreme Court will tackle the “Bridgegate” issue at oral argument on Tuesday, in a case that could be the latest win for corruption convicts and the latest rebuke to prosecutors for stretching the nation’s criminal laws to fit generally bad behavior.
Ex-Chris Christie aide Bridget Anne Kelly, author of the infamous “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email, certainly hopes so.
She and ex-Port Authority executive Bill Baroni were convicted of fraudulently depriving the government of property for their role in “reallocating” traffic lanes at the George Washington Bridge—the world’s busiest—in 2013, under the guise of a fictitious traffic study.
Nightmare gridlock ensued on the first day of school in Fort Lee, whose mayor declined to endorse Christie’s reelection for governor. First responders had trouble reaching emergencies involving a missing child and a heart attack.
But Kelly and Baroni cite cases like 2016’s McDonnell v. United States, where a unanimous high court upended ex-Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell’s fraud convictions. There the justices were concerned with “the broader legal implications of the Government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute,” they said, even if McDonnell’s conduct was “distasteful.”
The Bridgegate schemers’ lawyers argue that, even if they likewise behaved badly in carrying out the political plot, they didn’t fraudulently deprive the government of property under federal law.
The government says the deprivation was commandeering Port Authority resources by faking the traffic study.
But there’s “no way that could be the law,” Kelly argues in her brief to the justices ahead of the argument.
If the court doesn’t overturn their convictions, then all sorts of politicians are in danger of finding themselves behind bars, she claims, rattling off a slew of scenarios like a local deputy official ordering pothole repairs to reward her boss’ political base.
But there’s no need to “invent new limitations on federal fraud,” the government retorts.
“The actual facts of this case,” the Department of Justice said in its brief, “differentiate it from the true official decisions at issue in defendants’ parade of horribles.”
Kelly and Baroni were convicted, the government says, because the jury “found that they lied about the existence of a traffic study to obtain authority over lane allocation that Baroni did not otherwise possess.”
The case is Kelly v. United States, U.S., No. 18-1059.