WASHINGTON, DC—The criminal convictions of two ex-officials in former Governor Chris Christie’s administration have been thrown out by the highest court in the nation.
After arguing the case before the US Supreme Court in January, attorneys for Bridget Ann Kelly and Bill Baroni were successful in getting the duo’s high-profile convictions overturned, finally ending the years-long ordeal.
The ruling was handed down on May 7, more than six years after Kelly and Baroni were involved in a bizarre and punitive scheme to close off access lanes to the world’s busiest bridge and purposely cause traffic jams.
The conspirators later concocted a cover story for the lane closures, claiming it was a traffic study. But that story unraveled shortly after Christie secured a second term as Governor.
An aggressive prosecution by US Attorney Paul Fishman charged three members of Christie’s administration, but claimed not to have enough on Christie to charge him.
Kelly worked in Christie’s “inter-governmental affairs” office, while Christie plucked Baroni from the State Senate, to work for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Before losing his job and being criminally charged, Baroni went to bat defending the scheme as an above-board “traffic study” in an infamous Assembly Transportation Committee hearing.
But, that committee had subpoena power and ultimately forced the release of records including an email from Kelly to Wildstein saying: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
That sentence shocked the state when it became public record in January 2014, tying Christie’s administration to a scandal that he had repeatedly denied knowledge of or involvement in. “Bridgegate,” as it would soon be known, was national news.
Baroni had already reported to federal prison by the time Kelly’s petition for a Supreme Court appeal was approved. Attorneys secured Baroni’s release shortly thereafter, and the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 to vacate the convictions.
“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,” the court held in its unanimous decision.
While there are no longer criminal charges pending against the two, the Supreme Court said only that there were no federal crimes committed, stating that “federal fraud law leaves much public corruption to the States (or their electorates) to rectify.”
“Baroni and Kelly used deception to reduce Fort Lee’s access lanes to the George Washington Bridge—and thereby jeopardized the safety of the town’s residents. But not every corrupt act by state or local officials is a federal crime.”
Baroni and Kelly assisted in the scheme hatched by David Wildstein, a politician-turned-journalist who Christie hired to a high-powered job at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Wildstein, a former Mayor of Livingston who anonymously started an influential political blog before joining the Christie administration, supposedly concocted the scheme to punish the Mayor of Fort Lee. However, MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki has posited another, slightly different motive: messing with a multi-million dollar development project in the pipeline that depended on those access lanes.
After turning state’s witness and taking a plea deal that kept him out of prison, Wildstein decided to return to reporting, launching the popular political news operation New Jersey Globe.
The scandal became one of the biggest news stories in the nation and it’s widely credited with tanking Christie’s campaign for US President.
The trial, held at the federal court in Newark, became a national spectacle where the defense and the prosecution could agree on one thing: Chris Christie knew about the scheme to close the access lanes.
It also had ripple effects on New Jersey government and politics, causing Christie to eventually withdraw his nomination of Kevin O’Dowd, a one-time New Brunswick resident, for the position of NJ Attorney General.
Instead, John Jay Hoffman remained “Acting” Attorney General for nearly three years, a record length of time for such an official to serve without being confirmed for the position by the State Senate.
Hoffman was criticized for not bringing his own charges against Christie or his cronies, but he was rewarded with a $428,484 annual salary in his new position as the top lawyer for Rutgers University.
Governor Phil Murphy, who took over for Christie in January 2018, was asked about the Supreme Court’s decision and whether or not his Attorney General, Gurbir Grewal, would be asked open up an investigation of his own into the 2013 scheme and the ensuing cover-up.
“That’s a decision for the Attorney General. I have no insight at all,” Murphy said in response to a question at a recent press briefing
It’s unlikely Grewal will do anything about the caper. In 2017, as Bergen County Prosecutor, he put the kaibosh on a citizen’s criminal complaint against Governor Christie.
Bill Brennan, an activist and candidate for Governor in 2017, secured a ruling from a judge that there was probable cause to charge Christie with the state-level crime of official misconduct.
But Grewal refused to prosecute, allowing the state charge to die.