Ex-Christie Aide Gets Supreme Court Hearing on Bridge Scandal
(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether two allies of former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie were improperly convicted for their roles in the George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal, accepting a case that could make it harder to prosecute public officials for fraud.
The justices agreed to hear an appeal from Bridget Anne Kelly, who has been scheduled to start a 13-month prison term next month. The case will also affect Bill Baroni, who was convicted alongside Kelly and is serving an 18-month sentence.
The convictions stem from the 2013 “Bridgegate” scheme, which created crippling traffic jams to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, for failing to endorse Christie’s re-election bid that year. A federal appeals court upheld Kelly’s and Baroni’s fraud convictions while tossing out other charges.
Kelly contends that decision stretched the law so far that public officials will now risk prison time when they harbor secret personal or political motives for a decision they make.
The ruling “is a playbook for how to prosecute political adversaries, and transforms the federal judiciary into a Ministry of Truth for every public official in the nation,” she argued in her appeal.
Kelly, who had been Christie’s deputy chief of staff, gained notoriety because of an email she sent about a month before the closing of two access lanes to the bridge. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote.
Prosecutors said Kelly worked with Baroni, then the deputy executive director of the Port Authority, to close the lanes under the guise of conducting a traffic study.
Christie, a Republican, denied knowledge of the lane closings and wasn’t charged in the plot, though it helped end his presidential ambitions. His second term as governor ended in 2018.
The Trump administration urged the Supreme Court not to hear the appeal. In court papers, the Justice Department said the scheme met the requirements of the federal fraud statutes because it forced the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge, to pay thousands of dollars of overtime wages.
Kelly “does not dispute the trial evidence showing that the Port Authority spent several thousands of dollars paying employees for unnecessary work that served no legitimate Port Authority function,” the government argued.
The Supreme Court in recent years has narrowed the reach of the federal fraud laws. In 2016 the court tossed out the conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, saying it wasn’t clear he had done more than set up meetings and take other informal actions on behalf of a supporter.
The court will hear arguments and rule in the nine-month term that starts in October.
The case is Kelly v. United States, 18-1059.
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