NEWARK, N.J. – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit today affirmed five of seven convictions each for a former top official of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PA) and a former member of then-Gov. Christopher J. Christie’s senior staff for their roles in a scheme to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, by misusing PA resources to cause traffic problems in the borough, Mark Coyne, Attorney for the United States, announced.
William E. Baroni Jr., 46, and Bridget Anne Kelly, 46 — formerly the deputy executive director of the Port Authority and the deputy chief of staff for legislative and intergovernmental affairs in the Governor’s office, respectively — were each convicted on Nov. 4, 2016, of conspiring to misuse, and actually misusing, property of an organization receiving federal benefits; conspiring to commit, and actually committing, wire fraud; conspiring to injure and oppress certain individuals’ civil rights, and acting under color of law to deprive certain individuals of their civil rights. Baroni was sentenced to 24 months in prison and Kelly was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
In a unanimous, precedential opinion by Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Anthony J. Scirica Sr., the court upheld all but the civil rights counts of conviction and remanded the case to U.S. District Judge Susan D. Wigenton for resentencing.
All of the charges relate to the defendants’ scheme to manufacture traffic problems in Fort Lee by, without public warning, reducing from three to one the number of local access lanes to the upper level of the George Washington Bridge and the toll booths servicing those lanes. This was done to punish Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing then-Gov. Christie’s re-election bid. The evidence at trial showed that Fort Lee suffered hours of gridlock on four successive days during the first week of the school year because of the scheme.
The Court of Appeals found sufficient evidence of wire fraud and wire fraud conspiracy, rejecting the defendants’ argument that Baroni had unilateral authority to control traffic patterns at “the world’s busiest motor vehicle bridge.” The court found that he lacked such authority and that he and Kelly had deprived the PA of property by devoting PA resources to a sham traffic study. The court said the United States “has an especially significant interest in protecting the Port Authority’s . . . operational integrity” against fraud.
The court concluded that the defendants intentionally misapplied PA property and conspired to do so. The court held that the applicable statue covers more than just bribery and theft, and that Baroni’s and Kelly’s “conduct in this case falls squarely within the statute’s purpose.
The court rejected the defendants’ argument that the United States was improperly using federal criminal statutes to police state and local officials in the conduct of their official duties. “Congress has a uniquely significant interest in safeguarding the Port Authority, an interstate agency created by its consent,” the court said. The court confirmed that the defendants’ motive in defrauding the Port Authority was “not a required element of any of the charged offenses.
The court also held, however, that the constitutional right of intrastate travel on public roadways was not sufficiently developed nationwide to warrant prosecution under the federal civil rights statutes. The court therefore reversed and vacated Baroni’s and Kelly’s convictions for criminal civil rights violations.
The government is represented in the appeals by Assistant U.S. Attorney and Special Counsel to the U.S. Attorney Bruce P. Keller of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Lee M. Cortes Jr., David W. Feder and Vikas Khanna represented the United States at trial. The case is being overseen by Attorney for the United States Mark Coyne, Chief of the Appeals Division, because of the recusals of U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito and First Assistant U.S. Attorney Rachael Honig.