Another Monday, and another week ahead of working on federal criminal cases here in Atlanta and the remainder of the State of Georgia (and other parts of our Nation from time to time). I have to take a few minutes to write about the unanimous decision from the United States Supreme Court last week in the much-watched case of Bridget Kelly and her co-defendant, William Baroni. This is the somewhat famous “Bridgegate” prosecution, and in the end the highest court in the land once again told federal prosecutors they are trying to stretch the federal fraud laws far too wide.
Way back in 2013, folks who worked for and with Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey purposefully messed with the traffic pattern on the George Washington Bridge in order to punish the mayor of a nearby town who would not support Christie’s reelection bid. This led to four days of gridlock on the streets surrounding the bridge, after which the original pattern was restored. Bridget Kelly was the Governor’s deputy chief of staff, and along with William Baroni, came up with a bogus traffic pattern study as the so-called rationale behind the lane close-downs. The two officials were later charged with federal crimes for supposedly hatching and then executing the plan to mess with the traffic pattern as part of political “payback”.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote the unanimous opinion that threw out the convictions that federal prosecutors had obtained against Mr. Baroni and Ms. Kelly. The court ruled that although the officials’ actions were an “abuse of power,” they did not violate the federal fraud laws because the “scheme here did not aim to obtain money or property.”
The Defendants were fired from their jobs, and then prosecuted by seemingly over-zealous federal prosecutors. The District Judge imposed prison sentences, and the Court of Appeals upheld their convictions, reasoning that the Defendants engaged in deception when they lied about the traffic study to justify the change to the toll lanes, and those lies deprived the agency operating the bridge of the right to control the lanes and some piddling amount of money for an extra toll collector and work done by a traffic engineer.
In reversing the convictions, the Supreme Court reminded all of us that there are two parts of a federal fraud case. First, the government needs to show “that Baroni and Kelly engaged in deception,” and second, that they did so to obtain property. Unless bribes or kickbacks are involved (which were not at issue in this case), federal fraud laws are not some always-ready tool to fight public corruption; they apply only when a Defendant is trying to obtain money or property.
In reversing the convictions, the Court honed in on the second element, whether deception was done in order to get “property.” The court rejected the government’s argument about the toll collector and traffic engineer, because getting this “property” simply was not the point of the alleged scheme. The Defendants weren’t trying to use the toll collector’s services or the data that the traffic engineers collected; the cost of the employees’ labor was simply an “incidental byproduct” of their scheme.
The big part of the case comes from the statements in whichthe court slapped down the federal government’s seemingly never-ending quest to “use the criminal law to enforce (its view of) integrity in broad swaths of state and local policymaking.” The Court did not say that the Defendants acted properly, far from it. However, the court concluded, “not every corrupt act by state or local officials is a federal crime.”