The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on Tuesday reversed civil rights convictions for a onetime aide to former Gov. Chris Christie and a former Port Authority official charged with orchestrating the now-infamous Bridgegate scheme, but upheld convictions for wire fraud and misuse of agency property.
The ruling means that two of the seven counts charging Bridget Anne Kelly and William Baroni Jr. with arranging the politically motivated lane closures at the George Washington Bridge in September 2013 are vacated, but the others remain.
Third Circuit Judge Anthony Scirica, joined by Judges Thomas Ambro and Eugene Siler Jr., left intact their other convictions, but nevertheless remanded the case for resentencing.
In the vacated counts, Baroni and Kelly were charged with violating the civil rights of motorists who use the bridge—the world’s busiest, linking Bergen County to New York City—and who were stuck in gridlock because of the lane closures.
Prosecutors alleged that the two concocted the lane-closing scheme as a means of retaliation against a local mayor—Fort Lee’s Mark Sokolich, a Democrat—who refused to endorse Christie, a Republican, in his bid for re-election as governor in 2013.
Following a six-week trial in Newark federal court two years ago, Baroni, who during the plot was deputy director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Kelly, a deputy chief of staff to Christie at the time, were convicted on all counts. They were later sentenced to prison. Baroni received a 24-month sentence; Kelly, an 18-month sentence.
Baroni’s attorney, Michael Levy of the New York office of Sidley Austin, said in a statement: “We are gratified that the court of appeals concluded that Bill Baroni did not violate anyone’s constitutional rights and his sentence has now been vacated.
“What remains from this unprecedented prosecution are convictions only for the supposed misapplication of a few thousand dollars of Port Authority resources over less than one week. We disagree that any resources were misapplied and are evaluating further appellate options.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark, which prosecuted the pair, issued a brief statement in response to the ruling. “The office is reviewing the opinion and is grateful for the court’s consideration of all the issues raised in the appeal,” the statement said.
Kelly’s attorney, Yaakov Roth of the Washington, D.C., office of Jones Day, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Federal prosecutors had argued that Baroni and Kelly violated motorists’ civil rights to “local travel on public roadways free from restrictions unrelated to legitimate government objectives.”
The appeals court, however, disagreed in Tuesday’s decision, saying the right was “not clearly established and thus cannot form the basis of the civil rights offenses.”
Scirica, writing for the panel, noted that other circuit courts were split on the question of whether the right to travel freely from one state to another is a civil right.
“The Supreme Court has never recognized an intrastate travel right,” he added.
“In addition to our opinion in [Lutz v. City of York], the First, Second, and Sixth circuits have recognized a right to intrastate travel, though they have described it at varying levels of generality,” the panel said. “On the other hand, the Fourth, Fifth, Seventh, Eighth, and Tenth circuits have treated the question more skeptically, often hesitating to recognize a due process intrastate travel right and sometimes explicitly rejecting theories rooted in other constitutional provisions.”
Conversely, the appeals court ruled, the evidence was sufficient to support the convictions for wire fraud, and for theft or bribery under Section 666 of the U.S. Criminal Code.
“There is overwhelming evidence that the bridge lanes were altered, 11 toll collectors worked additional overtime hours as a result, and the traffic study was conducted with the help of several well-paid Port Authority engineers,” Scirica wrote about the value of the Port Authority services misused by the defendants.
The panel also found no fault with the fact that U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton of the District of New Jersey declined to instruct the jury that a conviction would require finding that the defendants “intended to punish” Sokolich.
“The intent to punish Mayor Sokolich may explain defendants’ motive—why defendants intended to defraud the Port Authority in this case—but it is distinct from mens rea and is not a required element of any of the charged offenses,” Scirica said.
Baroni, Kelly and a third key Christie associate, David Wildstein—who like Baroni worked for the Port Authority—were charged in the scheme.
Baroni, before serving as the Port Authority’s deputy executive director, was a Republican state senator.
The scandal became known as “Bridgegate” and became an issue in Christie’s 2016 presidential bid, which ultimately failed.
Christie repeatedly denied knowledge of the scheme.
Wildstein initially claimed that the lane closures were part of a traffic study—an assertion that was quickly disproved in news reports, leading to an investigation by the federal government and by a joint committee of the New Jersey Legislature.
The 2015 indictment included nine counts: seven against both Baroni and Kelly, and two against Wildstein.
Wildstein pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy in 2015, and agreed to cooperate with the federal government in their prosecution of Baroni and Kelly. In addition to his probation and community service requirements, Wigenton also imposed $24,314 in fines and restitution.
David Gialanella contributed to this report.