Bridgegate and Criminal Fraud (Part 1)

by | May 29, 2020 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

On May 7, 2020, the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Kelly v. U.S., i.e. the “Bridgegate case.” The principal issue involved whether a defendant could be convicted of fraud under our federal criminal statutes even though there was no purpose to obtain money or property.

Justice Kagan: wrote for a unanimous Court in relevant part: During former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s 2013 reelection campaign, his Deputy Chief of Staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, avidly courted Democratic mayors for their endorsements, but Fort Lee’s mayor refused to back the Governor’s campaign. Determined to punish the mayor, Kelly, Port Authority Deputy Executive Director William Baroni, and another Port Authority official, David Wildstein, decided to reduce from three to one the number of lanes long reserved at the George Washington Bridge’s toll plaza for Fort Lee’s morning commuters.

To disguise their efforts at political retribution, Wildstein devised a cover story: The lane realignment was for a traffic study. As part of that cover story, the defendants asked Port Authority traffic engineers to collect some numbers about the effect of the changes. At the suggestion of a Port Authority manager, they also agreed to pay an extra toll collector overtime so that Fort Lee’s one remaining lane would not be shut down if the collector on duty needed a break. The lane realignment caused four days of gridlock in Fort Lee, and only ended when the Port Authority’s Executive Director learned of the scheme. Baroni and Kelly were convicted in federal court of wire fraud, fraud on a federally funded program or entity (the Port Authority), and conspiracy to commit each of those crimes. The Third Circuit affirmed.

Because the scheme here did not aim to obtain money or property, Baroni and Kelly could not have violated the federal-program fraud or wire fraud laws.  The federal wire fraud statute makes it a crime to effect (with the use of the wires) “any scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises.”  18 U. S. C. §1343.  Similarly, the federal program fraud statute bars “obtaining by fraud” the “property” (including money) of a federally funded program or entity.  §666(a)(1)(A).

Given the harm caused and corrupt motives underlying the lane closures, it is surprising that there is not a federal statute that would criminalize the conduct at issue. There are well over 4,500 federal criminal statutes and federal “overcriminalization” has been a topic of legal reform for decades.