Bridgegate defendants get hearing before U.S. Supreme Court
January 15, 2020
•Land Line Staff
Clarification: The lane closures affected access to the George Washington Bridge from the town of Fort Lee, N.J.
Two officials who were found guilty of fraud in the “Bridgegate” scandal could have their convictions overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court after a hearing Tuesday.
Bridget Kelly, former deputy chief of staff to former Gov. Chris Christie, and Bill Baroni, former deputy director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, were convicted in 2016 on fraud and civil rights violation charges after they changed the traffic patterns for accessing the George Washington Bridge without notifying local officials.
Kelly and Baroni claimed they did it as part of a traffic study, but prosecutors said closing the access lanes was deliberately done to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., for not endorsing Christie. The lane changes resulted in massive traffic backups in that city. A jury found them guilty. Kelly was sentenced to 13 months in prison, and Baroni received 18 months.
A U.S. Senate committee investigation into the incident found that the lane closures occurred between Sept. 9 and Sept. 13, 2013. The George Washington Bridge connects Fort Lee with Manhattan, and carries 275,000 vehicles per day. The four-day closure caused massive traffic jams and drew investigations from local, state and federal officials.
The court is considering whether to reverse the fraud convictions of Kelly and Baroni. The fraud convictions were considered challengeable because such cases typically involve public officials diverting public resources for self-enrichment. The federal jury that returned the guilty verdicts found the shutdown to be political payback.
Kelly’s attorney, Jacob Roth, argued that the fraud statues don’t prevent a state official from “lying to take unauthorized state actions.” Rather, they “prohibit lying to obtain property.”
“Here, because the defendants simply reallocated the traffic lanes from one public use to another, the Port Authority at most was deprived of regulatory control, not property,” Roth said, during Tuesday’s testimony.
Deputy Solicitor General Eric Feigin argued that the actions of the defendants amount to fraud in this case because they “commandeered” the lanes on the expressway for the defendants own uses, in this case, political retribution.
A decision on the case will be announced by late June.