As the nation is gripped by the novel coronavirus pandemic and accompanying economic woes, some important news stories get less attention in the news media they deserve. Though the Minneapolis Star Tribune gave a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling an appropriately prominent headline – “Unanimous Supreme Court throws out ‘Bridgegate’ convictions” – the news was swallowed up by even more urgent stories later in the day.
While the court’s ruling overturned the federal fraud convictions of two political allies of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the decision cannot heal the fatal wounds that Bridgegate inflicted on Christie’s once-promising presidential campaign and dreams.
A look back
A brief reminder: the Bridgegate scandal erupted in 2013 when two of Christie’s allies schemed to create massive traffic jams in Fort Lee, New Jersey, by closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge that connects New Jersey to New York City. Christie’s allies sought to punish Fort Lee’s mayor for not supporting the governor’s re-election bid.
For four workdays, gridlock brought traffic on the world’s busiest bridge to a virtual standstill.
Later, the federal government charged Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni with fraud for their roles in the scheme. While Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan noted that the pair had used “deception” to carry out their political vendetta that ultimately put citizens of Fort Lee in danger, they had not attempted to gain money or property, which meant they had not engaged in criminal fraud.
No federal crime
“Not every corrupt act by state or local officials is a federal crime,” Kagan wrote, adding that the pair’s plot was for “no reason other than political payback.”
Kelly and Baroni devised a plan to create gridlock in Fort Lee, beginning on the traffic-heavy first day of school in September 2013, by closing two of the three dedicated lanes onto the bridge from Fort Lee.
The Star Tribune reports that Kagan notes that the pair weren’t satisfied with the enormous traffic jam created that first day, writing that they “merrily kept the lane realignment in place for another three days.”
Not smart, but not a crime
While their vendetta wasn’t admirable or wise, it was also not a federal crime – a point the court agreed on unanimously. “Because the scheme here did not aim to obtain money or property, Baroni and Kelly could not have violated the federal-program fraud or wire fraud laws,” Kagan wrote.
The scandal derailed Christie’s 2016 presidential bid and upended the careers and lives of Baroni and Kelly.
In a statement after the court’s decision was announced, Kelly said the ruling “gave me back my name and began to reverse the six-and-a-half-year nightmare that has become my life.”
This is just the latest example of the court trying to rein in overreach by federal prosecutors overly eager for white collar convictions.