The Supreme Court on Thursday reversed the fraud convictions of two aides to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who played key roles in the “Bridgegate” scandal, which involved shutting down commuter lanes at the George Washington Bridge in order to punish the city of Fort Lee’s mayor for refusing to back Christie’s 2013 reelection effort.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the unanimous court that the two aides, Bridget Anne Kelly and William Baroni, “could not have violated the federal-program fraud or wire fraud laws” because the scheme did not “aim to obtain money or property.”
Kelly was Christie’s Deputy Chief of Staff and Baroni was Deputy Executive Director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The scandal has been seen as a death blow to the political career of Christie, who had hoped to leverage his second term as governor into a successful run for the Republican presidential nomination.
Kagan, an Obama appointee, wrote that the evidence “no doubt shows wrongdoing — deception, corruption, abuse of power.”
“But the federal fraud statutes at issue do not criminalize all such conduct,” Kagan wrote. “Under settled precedent, the officials could violate those laws only if an object of their dishonesty was to obtain the Port Authority’s money or property.”
Kelly was sentenced to 13 months in prison last year. Baroni was sentenced to 18 months in prison, and actually began serving that term in 2019, before being released after the Supreme Court said that it would take Kelly’s appeal. The high court accepted Kelly’s appeal just two weeks before she was due to begin serving her sentence.
In a statement on Thursday, Kelly said the court “gave me back my name and began to reverse the six-and-a-half-year nightmare that has become my life.”
The mother of four said she wanted “nothing more than to hug my children knowing they will have their mom with them always.”
The four-day shutdown of all but one of the Fort Lee lanes accessing the George Washington Bridge, the busiest motor vehicle bridge in the world, caused massive traffic backups in and around the city.
One of the most memorable aspects of the scandal was the email Kelly sent to David Wildstein, a Port Authority official, agreeing to the plan after Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor Mark Sokolich refused to endorse Christie’s reelection.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote.
The email became a damning piece of evidence against her.
Wildstein was sentenced to three years of probation in 2017 for his role in the scandal. He was not a party to the Supreme Court case and pleaded guilty in 2015.
Baroni, whom Christie had appointed to his post on the Port Authority, said at his sentencing in February 2019 that he “wanted to please him, but I chose to get sucked into his cult and culture.”
“So by the time of this idea, to use the lanes of the George Washington Bridge to help his campaign, I no longer had that line of right and wrong to say no or to stop it. So I didn’t,” Baroni said.
Kelly, after being sentenced in April 2019, had called Christie a “bully.”
“Mr. Christie, you are a bully and the days of you calling me a liar and destroying my life are over,” Kelly said at the time. “The truth will be heard — and for the former governor, that truth will be unescapable, regardless of lucrative television deals or even future campaigns. I plan to make sure of that.”
Christie, who attended oral arguments in the case in January, was never prosecuted in connection to the scandal and has consistently denied having knowledge of the plan.
“As I have said before, I had no knowledge of this scheme prior to or during these lane realignments, and had no role in authorizing them,” he said in a statement last year. “No credible evidence was ever presented to contradict that fact. Anything said to the contrary is simply untrue.”
The case is Kelly v. United States, No. 18–1059.
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