The Bridgegate saga that dominated New Jersey media for a couple of years reached its underwhelming ending last week. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned the federal fraud convictions of the two people given prison sentences in the affair.
Bill Baroni, former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff to then-Gov. Chris Christie, had been found guilty of conspiring with authority official David Wildstein to temporarily reduce access lanes to the George Washington Bridge for four days in 2013 to punish the mayor of Fort Lee for not supporting the governor’s reelection.
Wildstein made a deal with federal prosecutors to testify against Baroni and Kelly, in return receiving probation for his guilty plea. Baroni and Kelly received prison terms, which the Supreme Court first suspended when they agreed to hear the appeal last summer and then voided with their decision last Thursday.
The court’s acceptance of the case strongly suggested it would overturn the convictions as part of its series of rulings limiting the use of federal statutes in political corruption cases. This time it decisively ended an imaginative use of fraud law.
The law required prosecutors to show not just that Baroni and Kelly had engaged in political misconduct, but that they tried to fraudulently obtain money or property.
Prosecutors attempted to do so by arguing the pair had “commandeered” two lanes for their own use, and in doing so had deprived the Port Authority of the salaries of employees who moved traffic cones and otherwise worked in connection with the scheme.
This overreach found no support among any of the court’s nine justices. Their opinion, written by Justice Elena Kagan, pointed out the defendants didn’t convert the lanes to their personal use, just altered the authority’s usual allocation of lanes to serve their political purposes. The theory of taking employees’ pay was denounced for the unlimited potential for its use — whenever a politician lied about the reason for a decision, prosecutors could cite the salaries of employees implementing the decision to bring fraud charges.
The court didn’t condone the Bridgegate behavior, just made clear that “not every corrupt act by state or local officials is a federal crime.”
This was the second time the court’s campaign against the misuse of criminal law for political prosecutions has touched a major New Jersey case. It’s 2016 ruling that a corrupt “official act” had to be a formal exercise of power was instrumental in the dropping of the federal corruption case against Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, who had maintained the charges against him were unfounded.
By now state and local officials, as well as the public, should have gotten the message from the U.S. Supreme Court that it is up to them to reign in their own political corruption.
That sort of worked in Bridgegate. Christie denied awareness of the political traffic scheme and wasn’t charged, but was rightly held responsible for the actions of his appointees. The relentless coverage of the case ended his bid for the presidential nomination and damaged his political career.
New Jersey has a widespread reputation for corruption because too many state and local politicians serve themselves and their allies at the expense of the public, and the voters tolerate it. The politicians could address that themselves, or the public could replace them if they don’t, but neither any longer can hope the federal judiciary will side with their view of whose corruption is acceptable and whose isn’t.