Gov. Chris Christie was a high flier in New Jersey until his aides got a little too full of themselves.
Many corrupt acts by public officials are criminal in nature. God knows that’s been true in Illinois.
But as a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court recently noted in an important case, “not every corrupt act by state or local officials is a federal crime.” In so ruling in a scandalous case from New Jersey, the high court put another limit on the lengths federal prosecutors may go in trying to criminalize behavior that is despicable, but not necessarily unlawful.
The dispute stems from a widely-reported political controversy that revealed just how contemptuous public officials can be of the public they purport to serve. It grew out of the refusal of Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., to endorse Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s 2013 re-election bid. Aides to Christie, incensed by Sokolich’s refusal and obviously drunk on their own power, decided to punish Fort Lee residents — and, hence, Sokolich — by ordering an alteration in the traffic patterns on the George Washington Bridge that connects that city with New York.
The change, according to court filings, “led to four days of gridlock on the streets surrounding the bridge before the original pattern was eventually restored.”
What a rotten thing to do, and incredibly stupid as well, because the gridlock made big news. It was eventually reported that the alteration of the traffic pattern was motivated by an incredibly mean version of politics. The governor’s office was quickly implicated, forcing Christie to answer a host of questions about what he knew and didn’t know.
Although Christie was never implicated — at least not to the point of being named in the criminal case — two of his top aides were indicted. Bridget Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, and William Baroni, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, were charged in federal court and convicted of violating statutes prohibiting wire fraud and fraud from federally funded programs.
Federal fraud statutes are incredibly broad, but not unlimited in their scope. In this case, prosecutors were required to show that the defendants gained something of value from their decision to close the traffic lanes.
They did so in this case by arguing that Kelly’s and Baroni’s actions “deprived the Port Authority of its property — both its right to control the bridge lanes and the cost (approximately $5,400 to have an extra toll collector standing by and for traffic engineers to conduct the fictitious traffic study) of the otherwise unnecessary labor of its employees,” according to Supreme Court legal analyst Amy Howe.
In other words, prosecutors argued, the gain Kelly and Baroni obtained was not tangible, merely the satisfaction of getting even politically in a way that cost taxpayers both time and money. A federal appeals court, buying the prosecutors’ line, affirmed the conviction and prison sentences that were imposed.
But the high court, in a relatively brief 13-page opinion, sensibly ruled that federal fraud laws cannot be used to fight public corruption unless bribes or kickbacks are involved.
Justice Elena Kagan said wrongdoers must act in pursuit of money or property, not some intangible benefit identified by prosecutors.
To allow the prosecution’s legal interpretation to stand, Kagan wrote, would permit the government to “use the criminal law to enforce (its view of) integrity in broad swaths of state and local policy-making.”
Kagan was under no illusions about how ugly the conduct was in this case. But she argued that what prosecutors wanted to criminalize was simply a “run-of-the-mill exercise of regulatory power” that “cannot count as the taking of property.”
However one feels about the lane closures, it’s hard to dispute Kagan’s notion that the psychological satisfaction Kelly and Baroni received from throwing their weight around can be somehow construed as reflecting monetary gain to them.
The decision in this case provides a welcome defense from well-meaning but overly zealous federal prosecutors who have demonstrated that they are willing to cook up a variety of questionable legal theories in their efforts to apply fraud statutes to malicious or ill-conceived behavior.
Prior to the decision in this case, the high court — again ruling unanimously — overturned the corruption conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell because he met with and helped publicize the business of a campaign donor who had given gifts to the governor and his wife.
The court said McDonnell’s behavior — accepting generous gifts — was unseemly but not illegal because he offered nothing tangible in return. Indeed, the court ruled that meeting with a political supporter or arranging meetings with regulators for a supporter is part and parcel of everyday politics, not a quid offered in return for a quo.