It wasn’t exactly an exoneration for two of the principal characters in the “Bridgegate” scandal that sent former governor Chris Christie’s New Jersey popularity and national political career into a steep decline. But a unanimous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court did deliver Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni from the shadow of the hoosegow to which they were sentenced in November of 2016 for a political payback scheme they engineered in 2013.
In an opinion written by Justice Elena Kagan, the court held that the federal-wire-fraud and federal-program-fraud laws under which the pair were convicted (and to which a third figure, a confederate of Baroni’s at the Port Authority of New Jersey and New York, David Wildstein, pleaded out) required a motive to acquire money or property, in line with their original purpose as anti-bribery statutes:
The evidence the jury heard no doubt shows wrongdoing—deception, corruption, abuse of power. But the federal fraud statutes at issue do not criminalize all such conduct. 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. The Government contends it was, because the officials sought both to “commandeer” the Bridge’s access lanes and to divert the wage labor of the Port Authority employees used in that effort. Tr. of Oral Arg. 58. We disagree. The realignment of the toll lanes was an exercise of regulatory power—something this Court has already held fails to meet the statutes’ property requirement. And the employees’ labor was just the incidental cost of that regulation, rather than itself an object of the officials’ scheme.
Kelly, Christie’s then-deputy chief of staff, along with Baroni and Wildstein, were found by the trial jury to have schemed to create a traffic-aggravating road obstruction on the George Washington Bridge in order to punish a local mayor who had refused to endorse Christie’s reelection bid. The case became a symbol of the hardball tactics Christie was alleged to have regularly pursued, and didn’t do much good for his 2016 presidential campaign or the failed 2017 succession bid by his lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno.
SCOTUS not only reversed the trial court’s convictions, but the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that upheld the fraud convictions.
Christie, who was never charged in the proceedings against his aides and appointees, claimed a vindicated victimhood after hearing of the decision, reports USA Today:
The ex-governor responded to the ruling within minutes, criticizing the work of former U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman and the “Obama Justice Department” and alluding to his own tainted reputation.
“What cannot be undone is the damage that was visited upon all of the people dragged through the mud who had nothing to do with this incident,” Christie said in a statement. The result, he said, “cost the taxpayers millions in legal fees and changed the course of history.”
The course of history, it seems clear he believes, was leading to the administration of the 45th president of the United States, Chris Christie, had not prosecutors intervened, giving us a different narcissist at the helm of the ship of state in these turbulent times.