The tales of political vendettas and back-room machinations that animated the 2013 George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal were replaced Tuesday with comparatively dry legal arguments as two former associates of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie argued before a federal appeals court to have their convictions overturned.
Attorneys for Bill Baroni and Bridget Kelly acknowledged that even if the motivation for realigning the lanes at the bridge, causing traffic jams in the town of Fort Lee, was to punish its mayor for not endorsing Gov. Christie, that wasn’t a crime under federal law. The lanes still were being used for a public purpose and not to benefit either defendant, the attorneys argued.
Their conduct may have been “bad, wrongful and unjustifiable,” Baroni’s attorney Michael Levy told the judges, but “that is not the standard for a federal crime. This was bad conduct in search of a criminal theory on how to prosecute it.”
The massive gridlock over four days and part of a fifth in September 2013 mushroomed into a scandal that dragged down Gov. Christie’s presidential aspirations and, Christie later conceded, played a role in then-Republican nominee Donald Trump’s decision not to name him as his running mate.
Baroni was deputy executive director at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge, and Kelly was Gov. Christie’s deputy chief of staff. Baroni received a 24-month sentence last year; Kelly was sentenced to 18 months. They’ve been free pending their appeals.
Yaakov Roth, representing Kelly, said Tuesday even though the pair’s conduct “wasn’t a model of public service,” they received no personal benefit from realigning the lanes. Roth likened it to the difference between a mayor authorizing the filling of potholes on the street of a political ally instead of doing the same on the street of a political foe. Criminalizing that behavior would criminalize most political behavior, he implied.
“If the difference between lawful and unlawful use of property turns solely on what’s in the person’s head, then this statute has astounding breadth,” he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Keller, arguing for the government, countered that the example showed bad motives but no fraud, because the mayor had the power to authorize the work “without having to lie to colleagues” as Baroni did to subordinates.
That touched on another point of contention: whether Baroni had the authority to realign the lanes on his own, since the law specifies the unauthorized use of the property
“In this case, it was unauthorized and unjustified because it was accomplished by fraud,” Keller said.
The two sides also clashed over whether there is a right to intrastate travel, a key component of two civil rights charges on which both Kelly and Baroni were convicted.
Gov. Christie wasn’t charged and denied knowing about the plot until months later, but the negative publicity from the scandal torpedoed his presidential aspirations in the 2016 GOP primary. His account of when he knew about the scheme was contradicted during the fall 2016 trial by Kelly, Baroni and others.
Former Port Authority official David Wildstein, a former political operative and high school acquaintance of Gov. Christie’s, pleaded guilty and testified that he concocted the revenge plot and that Baroni and Kelly willingly went along. Wildstein was the recipient of Kelly’s infamous “Time for traffic problems in Fort Lee” email a month before the traffic jams.
Wildstein was sentenced to probation and now publishes a news website focusing on New Jersey politics from his home in Florida.
Gov. Christie, now a political analyst for ABC, said last year he was “incensed” by their conduct and characterized as “ridiculous” the idea that he would have endorsed it.