Supreme Court may toss out convictions in Bridgegate case

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By Pete Williams  with NBC News Politics
Bill Baroni, left, and Bridget Anne Kelly exit the federal courthouse in Ne
Bill Baroni, left, and Bridget Anne Kelly exit the federal courthouse in Newark, N.J., on Nov. 2, 2016.   -  Copyright  Peter Foley Bloomberg via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court seemed prepared Tuesday to reverse the convictions of two state officials behind the Bridgegate scandal that created monumental traffic jams in 2013 on the George Washington Bridge and tarnished the image of New Jersey's Republican governor, Chris Christie.

Several of the justices appeared to be skeptical of the prosecution's theory of the case — that the two committed fraudby lying about their reason for closing the bridge. The officials said they needed to conduct a study of traffic patterns, but a jury found that the real reason was to punish the mayor of a community served by the bridge who refused to endorse Christie's re-election.

Christie was in the courtroom to hear Tuesday's argument.

A federal court jury returned guilty verdicts against Christie aide Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni, the deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls the bridge. The jury found that they shut down two of three bridge lanes leading from Manhattan to Ft. Lee, New Jersey, as political payback.

What made the case controversial is that fraud cases typically accuse public officials of diverting public resources to line their own pockets and there was no such claim in this case. That seemed to bother several of the justices.

"The object of this deception was not to obtain property. The object was to create a traffic jam. The object was to benefit people politically," said Justice Elena Kagan.

Chief Justice John Roberts made the same point.

"The object of the scheme was not to commandeer lanes on the bridge," he said. "The object was to cause a traffic jam in Fort Lee."

And several justices seemed concerned that if the court upheld the convictions, it would open the door to charging any public official with fraud by asserting that he or she lied in claiming to act in the public interest. That might include a city official who orders potholes repaired to reward the mayor's political base while justifying it on policy grounds.

"The government is filled with rules. And there are numerous instances where a person might say something untrue about something related to a rule that gives him authority for that," said Justice Stephen Breyer. "I don't see how this case works."

The court's announcement in July that it would hear the case signaled that at least some justices believe the government over-reached in bringing the fraud charges. If the court throws the convictions out, it would further weaken the ability to prosecute public officials for fraud.

Both former officials were sentenced to prison for their role in the Bridgegate scandal. Kelly was to report this summer but has been allowed to remain free while the case is on appeal. Baroni began serving his sentence in April but was released on bond when the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

A decision will be announced by late June.