On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the convictions of two of the principles of the scheme to exact political revenge by altering the traffic patterns at the entrance of the George Washington Bridge in 2013. The Court ruled that because the scheme itself did not aim to obtain money or property, the defendants could not have committed wire fraud or federal program fraud. The decision by a unanimous Court reversed the decision of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which had affirmed the convictions of Bridget Anne Kelly and William Baroni.
The convictions at issue in the case arose out of a plan to cause major traffic problems for residents of Fort Lee, New Jersey as retribution for the refusal by its Mayor to endorse then Governor Chris Christie’s bid for reelection. The architects of the plan were Kelly, then governor Christie’s Deputy Chief of Staff; Baroni, then Deputy Executive Director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; and David Wildstein, another Port Authority official, who, like Baroni, had been appointed to the post by Governor Christie.
In 2013, there was a significant effort on behalf of the Governor, with Kelly leading the way, to garner widespread support for Governor Christie’s reelection from local officials. In the summer of 2013, one such local official, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, informed Kelly that he would not being endorsing Governor Christie. When Kelly reached out to Wildstein for ideas on how to retaliate against Sokolich, Wildstein suggested that eliminating the dedicated Fort Lee lanes on the toll plaza of the George Washington Bridge would cause rush-hour traffic to back up onto local streets, leading to gridlock there. Kelly thought that was a good idea, and wrote an email to that effect back to Wildstein. Kelly and Wildstein then secured Baroni’s approval of the plan.
When fully operational the George Washington Bridge, which spans the Hudson River between Fort Lee and Manhattan, has twelve lanes with tollbooths that feed into the bridge’s upper level from the Fort Lee side. For decades the basic mode of operation for morning commutes on the bridge was for 9 of the 12 lanes to carry traffic coming from nearby highways, with the three remaining lanes to serve only cars coming from Fort Lee. The plan agreed upon by Wildstein, Kelly and Baroni was to reduce those three lanes available to Fort Lee residents down to one.
The cover story for the scheme was that the planned lane change was part of a traffic study. In an attempt to add some authenticity, Wildstein told the Port Authority’s engineers to collect some numbers on how far back the traffic was delayed. In addition to tasking the engineers with fake data collection, Baroni, Wildstein, and Kelly also agreed that the Port Authority should incur the cost of additional toll collectors to provide relief to the toll collectors working at the single remaining Fort Lee designated toll both.
On September 9, 2013, the plan was put into action, with predicable results. The town’s streets almost immediately came to a standstill, school buses stood in place for hours, and first responders were hindered in attending to emergencies. Despite the overwhelming adverse impact, Kelly, Baroni, and Wildstein kept the plan in place for three more days.
When the scheme and resulting chaos came to light, each of the three individuals were removed from their positions, and eventually were charged with wire fraud, federal program fraud and conspiracy to commit each of those crimes. Wildstein pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and agreed to cooperate with the Government. Baroni and Kelly went to trial and were eventually found guilty of all charges. On appeal to Third Circuit, where Baroni and Kelly argued that the evidence was insufficient to sustain a conviction, the convictions were affirmed.
In delivering the opinion of the Court, Associate Justice Elena Kagan noted that both of the principal substantive charges at issue, wire fraud and federal program fraud, target fraudulent schemes to obtain property. The critical question before the Court, therefore, was not whether the trial evidence demonstrated “wrongdoing—deception, corruption, abuse of power.” The question rather was whether the defendants committed property fraud. The Court reasoned that under either of the wire fraud or federal program fraud statutes, the Government had to show not only that Baroni and Kelly engaged in deception, but that an object of their fraud was property, citing the Court’s prior decision in Cleveland v. United States, 531 U. S. 12, 26 (2000).
The government argued that the deceit of Baroni and Kelly had property as its object in two ways by (1) taking control over the physical lanes on the bridge for the wrongful purpose and (2) depriving the Port Authority of the costs of compensating the engineers and toll-collectors for the tasks they carried out at the direction of Wildstein and Baroni. The Court disagreed, finding instead that the realignment was a “quintessential exercise of regulatory power.” As a result, neither the use of the bridge or the taking of the time of the Port Authority engineers and toll collectors were objects of the fraud. The Court contrasted those actions with examples of cases where a public official uses a public employee’s time to provide personal services to the public official or to provide services for a political contributor.
The Court found that the time and labor of Port Authority employees were just “an incidental (even if foreseen) byproduct of Baroni’s and Kelly’s regulatory object.” The Court’s opinion leaves little doubt that the trial evidence demonstrated that the actions of the defendants constituted an abuse of power. Nonetheless, it found that the scheme here did not aim to obtain money or property, and as a result Baroni and Kelly could not have violated the federal-program fraud or wire fraud laws. A copy of the full opinion can be found here.