On May 7, 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States reversed the convictions of two former New Jersey public officials who were convicted as part of the “Bridgegate” scandal. As laid out by the Court, the defendants – Bridget Anne Kelly, Deputy Chief of Staff for then New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and William Baroni, then Deputy Executive Director for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey – conspired with others to shut down all but one lane on the George Washington Bridge as part of a plot to exact political retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, who refused to back Governor Christie’s 2013 reelection campaign.
Kelly and Baroni were convicted in federal court of wire fraud, fraud on a federally funded program or entity, and conspiracy. Baroni was sentenced to two years in prison, and Kelly to thirteen months. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed their convictions. In a thirteen-page unanimous opinion authored by Justice Kagan, the Supreme Court reversed their convictions, holding that “[b]ecause the scheme .did not aim to obtain money or property, [the defendants] could not have violated the federal-program fraud or wire fraud laws.”
As outlined by the Supreme Court, the federal wire fraud statute “makes it a crime to effect (with the use of the wires) ‘any scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises.’” 18 U.S.C. § 1343. The federal-program fraud statute “bars ‘obtaining by fraud’ the ‘property’ (including money) of a federally funded program or entity.” 18 U.S.C. § 666(a)(1)(A). The Court noted that “[t]hese statutes are ‘limited in scope to the protection of property rights,’ and do not authorize federal prosecutors to ‘set standards of disclosure and good government for local and state officials.” “So under either provision,” the Court held, “the Government had to show not only that [the defendants] engaged in deception, but that an object of their fraud was money or property.”
The Court went on to reject the government’s arguments that the Bridgegate scheme had the object of obtaining the Port Authority’s money or property. Instead, the Court noted, the scheme amounted to an “abuse of power,” which is not in and of itself sufficient to prove a violation of the fraud statutes at issue. As Justice Kagan noted in her opinion, which was joined by all of the Justices, “[t]he 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.”
The case is styled Kelly v. United States et al, No. 18-1059. The Court’s opinion can be read in its entity here.
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