June 28, 2019 / 1:47 PM / 23 days ago

Supreme Court to hear New Jersey 'Bridgegate' appeal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear an appeal concerning the criminal convictions of two former associates of former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in the so-called Bridgegate scandal that hindered his 2016 presidential candidacy.

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/File Photo

The justices said they would hear an appeal by Bridget Anne Kelly, a former Christie deputy chief of staff, challenging whether she was validly prosecuted. Bill Baroni, a former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who was also convicted, would benefit if Kelly wins.

The court will review a November ruling by the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholding their convictions for wire fraud and misusing Port Authority resources.

The court will hear oral arguments and issue a ruling in its next term, which starts in October and ends in June 2020.

The legal question is whether the actions for which the defendants were prosecuted fit the definition of fraud under federal law.

Prosecutors had accused the defendants of engineering days of lane closures in September 2013 on the George Washington Bridge, the world’s busiest bridge, which connects Fort Lee, New Jersey, to New York City. The closures caused days of traffic gridlock and were intended to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee after he declined to endorse the Republican Christie’s gubernatorial re-election bid, prosecutors said.

Baroni is serving an 18-month prison sentence while Kelly’s 13-month sentence was put on hold while she appealed.

Christie, who had been a rising star in Republican politics before Bridgegate, denied involvement and was not charged. But the scandal hurt his national profile and contributed to low public approval ratings in his home state.

He dropped out early in the 2016 Republican presidential nomination battle race and later served as an adviser to Donald Trump’s successful campaign.

Kelly told Port Authority executive David Wildstein in an August 2013 email that 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. Wildstein, the accused Bridgegate mastermind, was sentenced to probation in July 2017 after pleading guilty and cooperating with prosecutors.

In the appeal, Kelly and Baroni had the backing, in a friend-of-the-court brief, of two high-profile figures who faced public corruption prosecutions of their own: former media mogul Conrad Black and former Republican Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell.

Black was convicted of fraud and obstruction of justice and was pardoned by President Donald Trump in May.

McDonnell’s bribery convictions were tossed by the Supreme Court in 2016.

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Bill Trott

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