The George Washington Bridge. Photo by Flickr user joiseyshowaa.
The Supreme Court has a message for U.S. attorneys and their deputies: There is some real wisdom in the classic parental advice, “Don’t make a federal case out of it.”
Or, as Justice Elena Kagan succinctly put it, “not every corrupt act by state or local officials is a federal crime.” Kagan was writing for a unanimous court – yes, you read that correctly – last week when it overturned the fraud and conspiracy convictions of two former officials in New Jersey’s notorious 2013 “Bridgegate” scandal.
The justices acknowledged that Bridget Anne Kelly, deputy chief of staff to then-Gov. Chris Christie, and William Baroni, whom Christie gave the plum job of deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, behaved like devious, scheming, sociopathic slimeballs (my words, not Justice Kagan’s). Kelly and Baroni gridlocked the city of Fort Lee to punish its Democratic mayor for not endorsing Republican Christie’s reelection bid.
The George Washington Bridge was the vehicle they chose to commit this vehicular assault on the Fort Lee citizenry. With the connivance of David Wildstein, who was Baroni’s chief of staff, they invented a bogus traffic study and closed two of the three dedicated toll lanes that Fort Lee residents normally use to get to Manhattan during the morning rush hour. Kelly and Baroni then left the lanes closed for four days. In that span, they ignored frantic calls and messages from Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich and snickered behind his back via texts.
“Is it wrong that I am smiling?” Kelly wrote in one text, as school buses, ambulances and hundreds of her boss’s constituents sat immobile. The misery only ended when the Port Authority executive director, Patrick Foye – a New York appointee to the bi-state agency – got wind of it and ordered the lanes reopened. By then the traffic nightmare was all over the metropolitan area’s news.
Yet Christie, a notorious micromanager, claimed ignorance of the scheme from the very beginning. He won a huge re-election victory that year without support from Sokolich. Christie was in the early stages of planning his 2016 presidential bid when things began to unravel. With a Democrat in the White House, New Jersey’s U.S. attorney had no reason not to take a close look at the mess. Wildstein pleaded guilty to conspiracy and became the prosecution’s key witness.
However, the federal fraud statutes prosecutors invoked required that the perpetrators seek some financial gain. “Under settled precedent, the officials could violate those laws only if an object of their dishonesty was to obtain the Port Authority’s money or property,” Kagan wrote. Reallocating the toll lanes was an administrative decision that did not cost the Port Authority anything, the Supreme Court held. The same number of cars probably crossed the bridge in those four morning rush hours. At peak times, fewer would have made it across from Fort Lee, but more would have crossed the bridge via the highways that the two extra toll lanes now served. The extra labor of Port Authority employees the sham traffic study incurred was an “incidental cost” and not the point of Kelly and Baroni’s actions.
Of course the people of Fort Lee, and the rest of New Jersey too, have every right to expect their public officials to make decisions that serve the public interest, rather than their personal and political goals. Federal prosecutors have long used a theory that political chicanery such as Bridgegate deprives the citizenry of the honest services it has a right to expect. The Supreme Court has now made crystal clear, however, that this is not enough to sustain a federal prosecution. Under current law, it is up to the states to rectify public corruption when officials don’t actively enrich themselves.
New Jersey lawmakers, prosecutors and courts are free to set a higher bar for probity and good faith from elected officials and their staff. Absent that, the only effective punishment is the one that befell Christie.
As I wrote in January 2014, Bridgegate left Christie damaged political goods. His presidential bid never made it past New Hampshire. His popularity in New Jersey fell off a cliff after the scandal, foreclosing any realistic hope of getting a third term in the governor’s mansion. Christie threw his support to Donald Trump and hoped for a place in the Trump administration, but Trump had the good sense to maintain effective social distance from the infectious former governor.
Christie is back in private life now. His remaining public persona is reduced to an infamous meme featuring the former public servant relaxing on the beach at a shoreline park that, as governor, he had closed to everyone else during a budget fight. Christie was never prosecuted for Bridgegate, but he still must serve a life sentence. His reputation will stay imprisoned in that beachside image indefinitely.