WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Supreme Court justices on Tuesday appeared skeptical about the criminal prosecution of two associates of former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who are appealing their convictions in the “Bridgegate” scandal involving retribution against a local mayor who refused to endorse Christie.
Arguments before the justices focused on whether the actions for which Bridget Anne Kelly, a former Christie deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, a former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, were convicted fit the definition of fraud under federal law.
Several justices - liberals and conservatives - appeared dissatisfied with the U.S. Justice Department’s arguments in favor of the prosecutions of Kelly and Baroni, although they asked tough question of both sides. The Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018 upheld the 2016 convictions of Kelly and Baroni for wire fraud and misusing Port Authority resources.
Prosecutors had accused Kelly and Baroni of engineering days of lane closures in September 2013 on the George Washington Bridge, the world’s busiest bridge, which connects Fort Lee, New Jersey, to New York City. The closures caused traffic gridlock and were intended to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, after he declined to endorse the Republican Christie’s gubernatorial re-election bid, prosecutors said.
The scandal marred Christie’s reputation, damaged his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination and contributed to low public approval ratings in his home state. Christie, who had been a rising star in Republican politics before Bridgegate, denied involvement and was not charged.
PAINTING THE MAYOR’S HOUSE
The justices wrestled with whether re-allocating lanes on a bridge was akin to other types of government misconduct, citing examples like a mayor asking government employees to paint his house or plow snow from his driveway.
Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts noted that although the lane-meddling created traffic chaos, the public could still use the bridge.
“If people want to use the highway to get to Fort Lee, they can,” Roberts said.
Liberal Justice Elena Kagan said that although government employees were commandeered as part of the scheme, their role was incidental. Changing the traffic lanes of the bridge “is not an appropriation of property,” Kagan said.
Justice Samuel Alito, a New Jersey native who served as a federal prosecutor there, was among those tough on the prosecution, although he also appeared dissatisfied at what Kelly and Baroni’s lawyers argued.
At least part of the case hinges on whether Baroni had the authority to change traffic patterns on the bridge, which is a matter of dispute.
Christie, Kelly and Baroni all attended the arguments before the justices.
After dropping out of the race for the Republican nomination, Christie threw his support behind Donald Trump and served as an adviser, but Trump later fired him as the head of his transition team after being elected president.
Trump’s Justice Department is defending the prosecutions of Kelly and Baroni, which occurred before Trump took office.
Baroni initially started serving an 18-month prison sentence but was released after the Supreme Court agreed last year to hear the case. Kelly’s 13-month sentence was put on hold while she appealed.
Kelly told Port Authority executive David Wildstein in an August 2013 email that it was “[t]ime for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” and they helped invent a sham “traffic study” to justify the lane closures. Wildstein, the accused Bridgegate mastermind, was sentenced to probation in July 2017 after pleading guilty and cooperating with prosecutors.
In the appeal, Kelly and Baroni had the backing, in a friend-of-the-court brief, of two high-profile figures who faced public corruption prosecutions: former media mogul Conrad Black and former Republican Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell.
The Supreme Court in 2016 threw out McDonnell’s bribery conviction in a ruling that narrowed the types of conduct that can warrant a corruption prosecution. Trump last year granted a full pardon to Black, who was convicted in 2007 of fraud and obstruction of justice and spent 3-1/2 years in prison.
Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham