Opinion: ‘Bridgegate’ is still a scandal for the ages, even if it wasn’t a federal crime
“Bridgegate,” a 2013 scheme by associates of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to close traffic lanes to punish a political opponent of the governor, was and remains a political scandal for the ages.
What it wasn’t, the Supreme Court said on Wednesday, was a federal crime. The justices unanimously overturned the fraud convictions of Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and another Christie associate, Bill Baroni.
Writing for the court, Justice Elena Kagan conceded that “the evidence the jury heard no doubt shows wrongdoing — deception, corruption, abuse of power.” But the convictions had to fall, she added, because their misconduct didn’t amount to a taking of government “property” under the relevant federal statute.
“Under settled precedent,” she wrote, “the officials could violate those laws only if an object of their dishonesty was to obtain the Port Authority’s money or property.” The realignment of toll lanes on the George Washington Bridge was “an exercise of regulatory power,” not a property grab.
The closure of the lanes was political payback for the refusal of Mark Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee, to endorse Christie’s reelection. In what later became a cultural meme, Kelly sent an email to officials of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey saying: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Some initial reaction to Thursday’s decision portrayed it as yet another example of the Supreme Court going soft on public corruption. But that’s unfair.
It’s true that the court has repeatedly struck down convictions in cases of white-collar crime or political corruption.
Four years ago, also by a unanimous vote, the justices overturned the conviction of former Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia in connection with $175,000 in cash and gifts lavished on McDonnell and his wife by Jonnie Williams, a businessman who wanted the state to conduct research on a nutritional supplement his company had developed. McDonnell had set up a luncheon at the governor’s mansion to help promote the supplement, and he told several aides to meet with Williams.
Writing for the court in the McDonnell case, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the law required that, to be found guilty, the defendant had to have engaged in “a formal exercise of government power.” He also wrote: “Setting up a meeting, calling another public official or hosting an event does not, standing alone, qualify as an ‘official act.’”
That was far too narrow an interpretation of an “official act.” As the L.A. Times editorial board noted: “A public official can put his thumb on the scales in ways that go beyond signing a bill or appointing someone to public office. “
By contrast, in the Bridgegate decision, Kagan makes a plausible argument that prosecutors overreached.
The actors in Bridgegate did suffer consequences for their scheme. Both Kelly and Maroni lost their jobs. Christie, who has denied any knowledge of the plot, probably was harmed by the scandal in his unsuccessful quest for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
“Bridgegate” remains a scandal — and a cautionary tale for public officials — even if it wasn’t a federal crime.
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