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Tough political tactics are not criminal, ‘Bridgegate’ defendants argue

In Supreme Court appeal, ex-New Jersey officials rely on ‘get over it’ defense

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie saw his 2016 campaign for president disrupted by the “Bridgegate” scandal. (Meredith Dake-O'Connor/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As members of Congress prepared Tuesday for President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, former New Jersey public officials convened at the Supreme Court to argue lingering questions from “Bridgegate,” the last major public corruption scandal to disrupt a presidential election campaign.

As Chris Christie — the former New Jersey governor and unsuccessful 2016 Republican presidential candidate — looked on from the court chambers, lawyers representing two of his former political allies presented an argument that would be familiar to anyone following the White House rebuttal to impeachment charges.

Call it the “Get over it” defense.

Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni were appealing prison sentences for their roles in rerouting traffic in Fort Lee, New Jersey, leading to the George Washington Bridge in 2013. The jury found they did that to create a traffic jam and punish the Fort Lee mayor for not endorsing Christie’s reelection for governor that year. The incident was an example of “bare-knuckle politics,” their lawyers argued, but it did not break federal law.

Kelly and Baroni were charged with misusing public resources for political gain, which federal prosecutors called fraud. Their lawyers argued that politicians do that kind of thing all the time.

“This theory turns the integrity of every official action at every level of government into a potential federal fraud investigation,” Kelly’s lawyer, Jacob Roth, told the court.

As the court heard the case, many of its central figures indeed appeared to have gotten over it. Christie, a former U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey, spent part of Friday at the White House as Trump’s legal team and personal advocates planned their public relations response to the impeachment trial, Politico reported.

Others campaign elsewhere

Bill Stepien, a top Christie campaign aide whose affair with Kelly played a central role in his administration’s personal defense, went on to work in Trump’s White House and is now helping to run his reelection campaign. An internal review of the lane closures conducted by an outside law firm hired by Christie’s administration in 2014 claimed that the “cooling” of Kelly’s relationship with Stepien might have contributed to her state of mind when she ordered the lane closures in an infamous email that began, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

Another former Christie campaign aide who testified at the trial, Matthew Mowers, was responsible for appealing to local mayors for support and went on to help run Christie’s presidential bid in New Hampshire. Mowers announced Monday that he is running for Congress there, against freshman Democratic Rep. Chris Pappas.

Baroni and Kelly, however, face prison time. Baroni has served three months of his 18-month sentence. He was released in July after he was allowed to join Kelly’s appeal of the case, which had already been accepted by the high court.

Kelly faces a 13-month sentence and has remained free on bail. She has accused the Christie administration of using her as a scapegoat.

That history presented a dramatic backdrop when the two arrived in Washington this week. By coincidence, Christie and Kelly took the same train Monday night. On Tuesday, Christie and his wife were seated just a few rows in front of Kelly in the courtroom.

“I hope he has a harder time seeing me than I’m seeing him,” Kelly said on the Supreme Court steps after the hearing. The single mother of four was dressed all in black except for a bracelet made of colorful plastic beads.

Corruption statutes narrowed

Legal arguments by Kelly and Baroni focused on technical interpretations of federal fraud statutes, laws that the high court has increasingly narrowed in recent years.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a former U.S. attorney for the District of Rhode Island and a member of the Judiciary Committee, lamented that trend in an amicus brief filed with the court.

“Now is no time to degrade the jury as the public’s agent against corrupting influence,” the Rhode Island Democrat wrote. “Diminishing the jury’s power to check corruption, as corruption expands, is not a prescription for a healthy democracy.”

Roth, Kelly’s lawyer, argued that public officials can be found guilty of federal fraud only if they divert resources for tangible personal gain. Otherwise, he said, they could be reined in by state laws or punished at the ballot box. In this case, Christie’s presidential ambitions were derailed.

“The federal property fraud statute is concerned with cheating the government out of its property rights,” he said. “And that’s just not what we have here. What we have here is an abuse of power.”

Baroni was the deputy director of the Port Authority, the bi-state agency that controls the bridge. His lawyer, Michael Levy, argued that there was never any policy at the agency that precluded him from ordering a traffic study and that he was not obligated to tell the truth about why he wanted it. Prosecutors said a traffic study was cover for retaliation against the mayor.

“There’s a clear difference between politics and crime,” Levy said after the hearing. “In recent years, that distinction is being blurred amid public chants to lock up this official or that official. Our country and its political environment are worse for it. We believe the Supreme Court chose to hear this case because it shares that view.”

Eric Feigen, a deputy solicitor general at the Department of Justice, argued that the defendants shouldn’t get a “free pass” because their motives were political or because Baroni happened to work for the Port Authority.

“Their actions in this case were fraud in just the same way that it would be fraud for someone with no connection to the Port Authority to impersonate Port Authority supervisors and order Port Authority employees to realign Port Authority lanes,” he said.

The justices appeared sympathetic to Baroni and Kelly’s arguments.

“Isn’t it often the case that somebody who has the authority to do something may lie about why the person is doing the thing because, if the real reason was exposed, there would be — it would cause a furor, people would be angry?” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said. “But that doesn’t show the person doesn’t have the authority to do it.”

The court is expected to issue an opinion before the end of the term, typically the last week of June.

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