November 27, 2018 / 2:33 PM / 16 days ago

'Bridgegate' convictions of ex-aides to NJ governor partially reversed

(Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Tuesday partially overturned the convictions of two onetime associates of former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie over the “Bridgegate” lane-closing scandal that helped scuttle his presidential ambitions.

FILE PHOTO: Former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Bill Baroni is pictured as he leaves the court following his sentencing in Newark, New Jersey, U.S., March 29, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia threw out the civil rights convictions of Bill Baroni, a former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Bridget Anne Kelly, a former Christie deputy chief of staff.

It upheld their convictions for wire fraud and misusing Port Authority resources.

“There is no facially legitimate justification for defendants’ conduct here,” Circuit Judge Anthony Scirica wrote for a 3-0 panel.

Both defendants will be resentenced. Baroni and Kelly, both 46, have been free since being sentenced in March 2017 to respective prison terms of two years and 1-1/2 years.

Prosecutors accused the defendants of arranging a September 2013 shutdown of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge, the world’s busiest bridge, in Fort Lee, New Jersey, causing several days of gridlock.

This was allegedly done to punish Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor Mark Sokolich for refusing to endorse the successful re-election of Christie, a Republican, as governor.

Christie denied involvement and was not charged, but the scandal hurt his national profile and contributed to record-low approval ratings in New Jersey.

Michael Levy and Michael Critchley, lawyers who respectively represent Baroni and Kelly, said their clients were pleased the civil rights counts were thrown out. Baroni is exploring another appeal, and Kelly plans an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The office of U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito in New Jersey is reviewing the decision, a spokesman said.

Scirica said the defendants should not have been convicted for impeding the travel of Fort Lee residents as a means to punish Sokolich.

He said courts disagree on what that right entails, and the defendants could not have known they might be violating it.

Convictions that were upheld related to various emails from Baroni and Kelly, including in August 2013 when Kelly told Port Authority executive David Wildstein it was “[t]ime for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” and their roles in creating a sham “traffic study” to justify the lane closures.

Scirica said this led to “reallocating the flow of traffic and commandeering public employee time in a manner that made no economic or practical sense.”

Wildstein, the accused Bridgegate mastermind, was sentenced to probation in July 2017 after pleading guilty and cooperating with prosecutors.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Richard Chang

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