TRENTON — The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Friday to hear a case involving two former New Jersey officials convicted of felonies for causing gridlock near the George Washington Bridge to punish a mayor for not backing their boss, former Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
The justices announced they would hear the case in the fall involving Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni that came to be known as Bridgegate. The two were convicted in 2016 on multiple counts of fraud and civil rights violations for changing the traffic pattern to one of the country’s busiest bridges without telling local officials.
Kelly was expected to report to prison on a 13-month sentence soon, and Baroni is currently serving an 18-month term.
Kelly said in a statement that she was grateful to the court for taking up her case and hopeful that it would let “the truth come out.” Her lawyer, Michael Critchley, told NJ.com that he had tears in his eyes on Friday when he told her of the court’s decision. He says she is “unbelievably happy,” and added that to say they’re excited is an understatement.
Baroni’s attorney Michael Levy said in a statement that the former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey official is also grateful and confident that the court will find the pair committed no crime.
The case grabbed headlines in early 2014 after an email from Kelly saying “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” surfaced in news reports. Christie, then considered a rising potential presidential candidate for the GOP, responded by firing those involved and denying any wrongdoing. He was not charged.
The pair claimed the 2013 lane realignment of the bridge, which connects New Jersey to New York City over the Hudson River, was part of a traffic study. The result was days of gridlock in the New Jersey town of Fort Lee just as the school year was about to begin and months ahead of Christie’s re-election.
Christie on Friday said on ABC that he has always thought a crime was never committed. He also criticized the prosecution for bringing the case.
“I’ve always said that that prosecution was a politically motivated, politically vindictive prosecution, that there was no federal crime there,” Christie said.
Prosecutors alleged that Kelly and Baroni’s motive in realigning the lanes was to punish Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor for not endorsing Christie. At the time of the realignment, Kelly was Christie’s deputy chief of staff and Baroni was deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge.
Christie at the time was seeking re-election and was courting Democratic officials as a way to burnish his ability to reach across the aisle.
The subsequent scandal dragged down Christie’s 2016 presidential hopes, with then-candidate Donald Trump saying at one point during the campaigned that Christie knew about the closure — something the governor has denied.
A jury ultimately convicted both Kelly and Baroni on all counts. An appeals court threw out their civil rights convictions last fall but upheld the fraud counts. Kelly and Baroni’s sentences were also later reduced after the appeal. Kelly’s went to 13 months from 18, and Baroni’s went to 18 months from 24.
Attorneys said in asking the Supreme Court to take the case that the implication of the appeals court’s decision was “astounding — and grave.”
“Nothing is easier than accusing a public official of harboring secret political or personal motives for his decisions. Such an allegation suffices, under the decision below, not just to vote against the official, or sue him for an injunction, but to indict him for fraud,” attorneys wrote.
The court’s decision came despite the U.S. solicitor general’s recommending that the court not hear the appeal
“Further review is not warranted,” the solicitor general’s brief to the court said.
Baroni has become a party to appeal after filing a brief in support of Kelly, according to his law firm. He is scheduled to be released in July 2020, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Kelly was set to report to prison on July 10, though it’s unclear whether the high court’s decision would affect that.AlertMe