FILE PHOTO: The building of the U.S. Supreme Court is pictured in Washington, D.C., U.S., January 19, 2020. REUTERS/Will Dunham
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday threw out the criminal convictions of two associates of former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie involved in the “Bridgegate” scandal in a ruling that places new limits on the kinds of political acts that can be prosecuted.
The justices, in a 9-0 decision, sided with Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni, both of whom were convicted for their roles in a scheme to engineer traffic chaos on the world’s busiest bridge to punish a local mayor who refused to endorse Christie’s gubernatorial re-election bid.
“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,” liberal Justice Elena Kagan wrote on behalf of the court.
Kelly, a former Christie deputy chief of staff, and Baroni, a former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, were convicted in 2016 of wire fraud and misusing Port Authority resources. The Supreme Court ruled that their actions did not fit within the definition of fraud under federal law.
Kagan wrote that the laws would be violated only if their aim was “to obtain the Port Authority’s money or property.” The scheme was an exercise of “regulatory power” that does not constitute “property” under the fraud laws, Kagan added.
Prosecutors accused Kelly and Baroni of creating days of lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, which connects Fort Lee, New Jersey, to New York City, the most populous U.S. 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 for re-election, according to prosecutors. The traffic was so bad that local authorities at the time called it a threat to public safety because it delayed emergency responders.
Christie denied involvement and was not charged. The scandal sullied Christie’s reputation, damaged his campaign for the 2016 Republican U.S. presidential nomination and contributed to his sagging public approval ratings in New Jersey.
Christie served as an adviser to President Donald Trump in 2016. Trump later fired him as the head of his transition team after being elected president.
Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham