Politics

Supreme Court reverses fraud convictions of Christie aides in NJ 'Bridgegate' scandal

Key Points
  • The Supreme Court reversed the fraud convictions of two aides to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for their key roles in the "Bridgegate" scandal.
  • The scandal 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.
  • In a unanimous ruling, Justice Elena Kagan said 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."
Bridget Anne Kelly, former deputy chief of staff to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (L) and Bill Baroni, former deputy executive director of The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey
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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 2013 "Bridgegate" scandal.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the unanimous court that 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."

The plot involved shutting down commuter lanes at the George Washington Bridge connecting New Jersey and New York in order to create massive traffic jams to punish the city of Fort Lee's mayor for refusing to back Christie's 2013 reelection effort. 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 agency that manages the bridge. 

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. Christie was dropped as the head of President Donald Trump's White House transition team in 2016 shortly after Kelly and Baroni were convicted. 

Trump celebrated the decision on Twitter, writing that "a complete and total exoneration (with a 9-0 vote by the U.S. Supreme Court) on the Obama DOJ Scam referred to as 'Bridgegate.'"

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 said. "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 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 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 47-year-old mother of four said she wanted "nothing more than to hug my children knowing they will have their mom with them always."

An attorney for Baroni said that "Bill is heartened that the system ultimately worked, even as he recognizes how often it fails others who are less fortunate."

"At long last, Bill looks forward to moving on from this case and continuing his life of service," the statement said. 

The four-day shutdown of all but one of the Fort Lee lanes accessing the world's busiest motor vehicle bridge 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. He was not a party to the Supreme Court case and pleaded guilty in 2015. 

Baroni, 48, whom Christie had appointed to the Port Authority post, 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, lashed out at Christie.

"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 the scandal and has consistently denied having knowledge of the plan. Christie said in a statement Thursday that it was "good for all involved that today justice has finally been done." He also went after former U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, who had led the case.

"There are no words of apology that would be sufficient to right the wrongs committed by Paul Fishman," Christie said. "From the very first day of his involvement, he was determined to damage the reputations of as many members of our Administration as he could."

Fishman, a Democrat, said in a statement that Thursday's ruling "does not negate the work of the career prosecutors and law enforcement agents" who worked on the case.

"It is stunning, but perhaps not surprising, that Chris Christie's response is to concoct accusations of political ambition, partisanship, and personal vindictiveness," he said. "Chris Christie may try to rewrite his legacy -- and he may want to rewrite history -- but the fact remains that the 'deception, corruption, and abuse of power' was committed for precisely those reasons by his team on his watch."

The case is Kelly v. United States, No. 18–1059.