Two allies of former Republican Gov. Chris Christie are hoping to overturn their 2016 criminal convictions for their roles in closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge in retaliation against a political enemy.
Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly acted in an “odious” way when then created traffic jams in Fort Lee in 2013 to punish the town’s Democratic mayor for refusing to endorse Christie for reelection, their attorneys argued, but their conduct did not warrant federal charges of corruption and fraud.
“From a moral perspective, I think it would be fair … to conclude that it was bad, that it was wrongful, that it was unjustifiable,” said defense attorney Michael Levy, who represented Baroni. “That is not the standard for a federal crime, however.”
Levy claimed federal prosecutors wielded laws typically reserved for thieving politicians in order to charge Baroni and Kelly. “This was bad conduct in search of a criminal theory of how to prosecute it,” Levy said.
But government lawyers said the verdict from 2016 was justified, and that the jury saw through the defendants’ claims that they were unwilling participants in a malicious scheme.
“You do not have legitimate government action in this case,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce P. Keller, Special Counsel to the U.S. Attorney. “The fraud is all.”
The arguments were held before a three-judge panel of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.
Last year Baroni, a former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey appointee, was sentenced to two years in prison and Kelly, a former deputy chief of staff to Christie, was given 18 months for causing traffic jams in Fort Lee and then covering it up. Both have remained free as they appeal their convictions and appeared in court for Tuesday’s arguments.
A third defendant, political operative and former Port Authority employee David Wildstein, pleaded guilty to his role in the plot and received probation.
Christie was never charged in the case and denies knowing about the plan to close lanes.
Defense attorneys claimed there is a big difference between this case and other political corruption prosecutions in which elected officials misuse public resources for personal gain.
Kelly’s defense attorney Yaakov M. Roth said neither defendant — even if they had bad intentions — was personally enriched by their conduct. Two of three lanes typically dedicated to Fort Lee drivers were simply shifted to drivers heading from the highway onto the George Washington Bridge, he said. The lane “realignments” prompted the Port Authority to bring in an extra toll collector.
“There’s no misapplication [of public resources] because the lanes and toll booths were put to a public use — not a private use,” Roth argued. “That toll keeper wasn’t doing Baroni’s laundry.”
Baroni and Kelly were also found guilty of violating the civil rights of Fort Lee residents by hampering their ability to travel freely. Some of the oral arguments focused on whether there is even a well-established Constitutional right to intrastate travel that the defendants were found guilty of having violated, a notion defense attorneys doubted.
During about two hours of arguments Tuesday, the three appeals court judges peppered attorneys with questions but appeared not to indicate where they would come down in their ruling.
Nevertheless Judge Thomas L. Ambro noted that the defendants would have likely made their political point with one day of lane closures, which tied up traffic in the North Jersey town during the first week of school in the fall of 2013, trapping school buses, ambulances, and commuters alike.
Ambro suggested that four days of lane closures — noting that the defendants were hoping for even more — was “overkill on overkill.”