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The U. S. Supreme Court’s decision to consider the appeal of Bridget Anne Kelly of her conviction in the Bridgegate scandal will be one of the most closely watch judicial proceedings in years, first because her freedom hangs in the balance and second because it may — at last — provide some clear guidance on when the actions of public officials cease being political punishment and cross into criminality.
Kelly, once a deputy chief of staff to Gov. Chris Christie, was convicted in 2016 along with Bill Baroni, deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, of fraud and civil rights violations for their roles in re-directing access lanes to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee in 2013 creating a massive four-day traffic jam as retribution against the town’s Democratic mayor for refusing to endorse Christie’s re-election.
They conspired with David Wildstein, at the time director of capital projects at the Port Authority, to carry out the re-alignment under the guise of an Authority-sanctioned traffic study. Wildstein struck a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty and testify against the other two in return for probation.
Kelly has pursued her appeal while Baroni dropped his and is currently serving an 18-month sentence in a Federal prison. Baroni yesterday filed a motion to be released on bail pending the outcome of Kelly’s appeal.
Their attorneys argued that their involvement in the plot to create the traffic tie-up did not constitute a Federal crime, but, rather, was an act of political retribution. Criminalizing such behavior would, they contended, place in serious legal jeopardy any public official whose conduct was designed to deliver a political message even though the message was disguised as advancing a public purpose.
While the Supreme Court’s acceptance of Kelly’s appeal was unexpected and came as a surprise, some observers interpreted the court’s willingness to involve itself as an attempt to draw a bright line between political behavior — no matter how egregious — and acts of public corruption punishable by law. Kelly, under that interpretation, would benefit.
Others took it further, suggesting that the court’s acceptance of the case indicates some sympathy for overturning her conviction. It would have been a simple matter, they argue, for the court to decline to hear it, quietly ending the matter without controversy.
Why take on a case, they ask, if the court did not feel it presented legitimate questions involving the limits of political conduct and whether such activities should be considered common practice rather than illegal conduct.
Christie quickly seized the opportunity to criticize the U. S. Attorney’s office, characterizing the trial as a vindictive political prosecution concocted in part to damage him and that no crime was committed.
His comments were a far cry from the humiliation he heaped on Kelly when the scandal erupted publicly in 2014, calling her stupid, deceitful, and a liar who had betrayed him.
A self-serving report issued by a law firm commissioned by Christie suggested that Kelly was emotionally distraught over an affair of the heart, a gratuitous accusation designed to question her stability and inflict personal embarrassment on her.
He insisted — and continues to insist — he was unaware of the lane re-alignment plot, even though testimony at the trial contradicted his claim. While his explanation was accepted by some and doubted by many, he was never charged with any wrongdoing.
Nevertheless, the scandal inflicted serious damage on his Administration, sent his public approval rating into steep decline and, according to many, destroyed his long shot candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
There is no doubt that whatever else its impact, the scandal forever stained his Administration.
In a broader sense and without applying it specifically to the Bridgegate scandal, political payback not only has a long and often colorful history, but ranges in severity from the petty and mundane to the more personally damaging.
Decisions to direct state funds to certain counties or municipalities are often reached with some level of political considerations in mind, as are appointments to government positions, prominent or entry-level.
Does, for instance, withholding money to finance the re-paving of a local highway because the mayor has been critical of the Administration rise to the level of criminality?
Or, does rejecting an application for a government position because the applicant was supported by a legislator who stood in opposition to the Administration warrant prosecution?
Politics, by definition, is an integral part of the governmental decision-making process, accepted as such and practiced routinely. Gray areas exist, to be sure, and it is the reckless politician who risks a great deal by venturing into them.
The rules may be unwritten, but they are understood by all. Limits are self-imposed and self-governed; boundaries are drawn, and risks are clearly defined.
It is indisputable that the lane alignment scheme was perhaps the most harebrained exercise of political power in the state’s history, displaying an arrogance and abuse of authority that was staggering.
Kelly and Baroni were caught up in it and it is to their discredit that any misgivings they felt were kept to themselves.
It was a situation that cried out for someone to stand up and point out the lunacy of the entire enterprise and warn that when it was uncovered — as it surely would have been at some point — everyone involved would pay a price.
While Kelly’s appeal has reached the highest court in the land, the damage to her and Baroni is irreversible. He’s a convicted felon in jail, she’s still in danger of imprisonment, and her reputation has been besmirched to a point where any possibility of public employment is out of the question.
For her, there remains hope of vindication by the Supreme Court and for others a hope for a final and unambiguous declaration of when political activity slams into prison walls.
Should Kelly prevail, she is entitled to a celebratory gathering, and a raising of glasses in a toast to the judicial system. Chris Christie won’t be there to join in.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.