(Bloomberg) -- U.S. Supreme Court justices voiced skepticism about the convictions of two allies of former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for their roles in the George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal.
Hearing arguments in Washington on Tuesday, the high court questioned whether Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni committed criminal fraud under federal law, even if they lied about the reason they closed the lanes.
The convictions stem from the 2013 “Bridgegate” scheme, which created crippling traffic jams to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, for failing to endorse the re-election bid of Christie, a Republican, that year.
Several justices said they weren’t sure Kelly and Baroni had fraudulently obtained government property, as required under the law. The Justice Department said the scheme met that requirement because it forced the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge, to pay thousands of dollars of overtime wages.
Justice Elena Kagan said those extra wages weren’t the purpose of the scheme.
“If I look at this, and I’m an ordinary juror, I’m thinking, you know, the object of this deception was not to obtain property,” she said. “The object was to create a traffic jam. The object was to benefit people politically.”
Justice Department lawyer Eric Feigin said the purpose was also to take control of “real property, physical lanes accessing the George Washington Bridge.”
Causing Traffic Jams
But Chief Justice John Roberts called the use of the lanes “incidental” to the scheme’s purpose.
“The object of the scheme was not to commandeer lanes on the bridge,” he said. “The object was to cause a traffic jam in Fort Lee.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was more supportive of the government, calling the extra time worked by government employees “essential to the scheme.”
Justice Stephen Breyer said a ruling for the government would reopen the types of prosecutions the court has previously ruled out. The Supreme Court in recent years has narrowed the reach of the federal fraud laws.
Kelly is seeking to avoid serving a 13-month prison sentence. Baroni had begun serving his 18-month sentence before being released on bail when the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case last year. Christie, Kelly and Baroni all attended Tuesday’s session.
In 2016 the court tossed out the conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, saying it wasn’t clear he had done more than set up meetings and take other informal actions on behalf of a supporter.
Kelly and Baroni say the government’s reasoning would put public officials at risk of prison time when they harbor secret personal or political motives for a decision they make.
“I’m not trying to suggest that this is OK,” Kelly’s lawyer, Jacob Roth, said. “We don’t want public officials acting for personal reasons. We don’t want them acting necessarily for partisan or political reasons. But what I’m saying is the remedy for that is not the federal property fraud statutes.“
Kelly, who had been Christie’s deputy chief of staff, gained notoriety because of an email she sent about a month before the closing of two access lanes to the bridge. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Kelly wrote.
Prosecutors said Kelly worked with Baroni, then the deputy executive director of the Port Authority, to close the lanes under the guise of conducting a traffic study.
Christie denied knowledge of the lane closings and wasn’t charged in the plot, though it helped end his presidential ambitions. His second term as governor ended in 2018.
The case is Kelly v. United States, 18-1059.
(Adds sentences Kelly and Baroni are facing in 12th paragraph)
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