Bridgegate: How A Traffic Jam Turned Into Federal Convictions
November 8, 2016 (Fault Lines) – Last week, a federal jury in New Jersey found former Chris Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Ann Kelly and former Port Authority Deputy Director Bill Baroni guilty on charges stemming from “Bridgegate.”
How did a traffic jam turn two high-ranking government officials into federal felons? Politics, of course. But was this really something to make a federal case out of?
Like most annoying things over the last few years, this all started with an election. While it became a bigger deal during the presidential primaries, Bridgegate actually started during the 2013 race for governor of New Jersey. Chris Christie, a Republican, needed support from both sides of the fence in Democrat-leaning New Jersey.
Of course, this is America. So despite what your Facebook friends tell you, you can support whoever you want in an election. Fort Lee, a small New Jersey town across the George Washington Bridge from the Big Apple, is led by mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat. Exercising his right to not be a Republican, he didn’t support Christie’s gubernatorial campaign.
The election was in November of 2013. In September of the same year, Kelly and Baroni, along with conspirator turned snitch, David Wildstein, decided to teach the Fort Lee mayor a lesson in old school New Jersey loyalty.
There are many ways to send a message of intimidation. Kelly, Baroni, and Wildstein chose a less bloody but more effective one. They shut down traffic lanes, hitting city-dwellers where it hurts. The resulting gridlock effectively shut down Fort Lee, as access to the GWB backs up onto the local roadways and jams up everything.. On the first day of school, no less. In addition to the inconvenience of not being able to get to school or work, emergency responders were delayed.
After a few days, traffic problems cleared back up. But Mayor Sokolich discovered the claimed reason for the lane closures, a traffic study, never occurred. He quickly became suspicious that he was being made to pay for failing to support Christie’s reelection campaign.
At this point, especially in light of all we have seen this election season, who cares? Sounds like a crappy prank by some childish politicos with more authority than sense. Let’s don’t make a federal case out of it.
Actually, let’s do make a federal case out of it. That’s what federal prosecutors do. After a lengthy investigation, several of Christie’s top aides were arrested and indicted on fraud charges and civil rights violations. The indictment spends 38 pages laying out the case against Baroni and Kelly. Wildstein got out early by rolling and pleading guilty.
What exactly were the fraud and civil rights violations? The fraud was easy. To type into an indictment at least. The explanation is a little more complex. 18 U.S.C. 666, in typical convoluted federal statute style, outlaws converting government property to an unlawful use. In this case, closing traffic lanes to punish a political enemy.
Wire fraud is self-explanatory. The short version is that you can’t do anything these days without committing wire fraud. Whether you are calling, tweeting, texting, or whatever, you are using the interstate “wires,” which makes it pretty easy to take your nefarious deed and make it a federal crime. By falsely using the Port Authority’s power to close traffic lanes…wire fraud!
The last charge is the best. Looking around, you may feel like your constitutional rights are shrinking. Between the thought police, the church police, the speech police, and, well, the actual police, you don’t really have the constitutional right to do much of anything.
But never fear. If ever there was a place constitutional rights are expanding, it’s in a civil rights indictment. According to the feds, you have the constitutional right to localized travel on the roadways, free from restrictions unrelated to legitimate government interests. Funny. The government seems to spend all day figuring out ways to screw you out of your rights. Except when it likes your rights. So now you have the right not to get stuck in a traffic jam. Useful.
Shutting down traffic lanes as revenge for political moves seems pretty much like the country we live in these days petty and vindictive and definitely worth firing somebody. But a federal case? That’s a little much. Even the most law and order among us would be hard-pressed to explain why this is criminal, instead of just the kind of asshole move that should cost you your job and your reputation and your ability to ever get taken seriously again.
This is what the jury was confronted with:
Sitting in the courtroom through six weeks of testimony in the trial of two New Jersey public officials charged with jamming traffic for political purposes, sometimes I wondered how jurors could manage to comprehend what they were hearing. The prosecution told them a story of a convoluted conspiracy to commit a seemingly purposeless crime, while the defense displayed charts depicting Governor Chris Christie’s inner circle, shooting off arrows of suspicion in all directions. But in the end, it seems, the jury kept its focus on just one of those arrows: the one pointing at David Wildstein, the mastermind of the plot, and the prosecution’s key witness.
A convoluted conspiracy to commit a purposeless crime. How interesting. Sounds like a purposeless prosecution, too. This is another example of trying to prosecute all of our problems right out of existence.
These convictions may be even more purposeless than they appear. What really makes this a matter of concern is that the traffic jam was intended to punish the Fort Lee mayor for his political affiliations. But that punishment wasn’t required for the convictions.
…in her instructions to jurors, and again in response to a question from them during deliberations, Judge Susan Wigenton ruled that prosecutors did not need to prove that Kelly and Baroni intended to punish the mayor.
With that instruction, all of this really comes down to whether the two defendants did something stupid. If it doesn’t even matter why Kelly and Baroni caused a traffic jam, they are really only being punished for dumb government action. And if that’s the case, there aren’t enough federal courtrooms in the country to solve that problem.