Seeking revenge against political opponents is a time-honored American tradition. Why is the Department of Justice contending that it is a crime?
Three former high-ranking officials in the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey have been implicated in a political scandal involving Governor Chris Christie. On May 1, 2015, the government filed the guilty plea of David Wildstein, former Port Authority director of interstate capital projects.
William Baroni Jr. (former deputy executive director of the Port Authority) and Bridget Kelly (former deputy chief of staff in the governor’s office in charge of intergovernmental affairs) have also been named in a separate criminal information.
Mr. Wildstein pleaded guilty to conspiracy to mishandle port authority property in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 666(a)(1)(A) and conspiracy against civil rights in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 241. Mr. Baroni and Ms. Kelly were also charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud under 18 U.S.C. § 1349.
Seriously, “conspiracy to mishandle port authority property”? Is this a real thing?
Yes, it is.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
In September 2013, two lanes of traffic leading from Fort Lee, New Jersey to the George Washington Bridge were mysteriously closed for four days. This led to massive traffic jams in Fort Lee.
According to the government’s information against Mr. Wildstein, the traffic jam was conceived to punish Mark Sokolich, then mayor of Fort Lee. Mayor Sokolich refused to endorse Governor Chris Christie’s bid for the 2013 gubernatorial race. Ms. Kelly allegedly reached out to Mayor Sokolich as part of her work in Christie’s intergovernmental affairs division, to encourage him to support Mr. Christie.
When rebuffed, she purportedly concocted the Bridgegate scheme as retribution. Apparently, the hope was that the traffic jams would lead to a backlash against Mayor Sokolich. She emailed Mr. Wildstein: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
According to the government, Ms. Kelly, Mr. Baroni, and Mr. Wildstein enlisted the Port Authority engineering department to conduct a “traffic study.” As part of this study, two of the three lanes from Fort Lee onto the bridge were closed.
The timing of the lane closings maximized the effect. The trio allegedly chose September 9, 2013 as the start date which would coincide with the September 11th attacks, the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur (each resulting in higher-than-average traffic loads) and the first day of school.
Maintaining “Radio Silence”
To make matters worse for Mayor Sokolich, the three alleged conspirators had agreed to maintain absolute silence on the matter. They ordered Port Authority officials not to respond to messages from the mayor’s office, and they ignored his emails, phone calls, and texts. Nevertheless, the three officials remained in frequent contact with one another, allegedly exchanging cynical quips about Fort Lee’s state of crisis.
The charging documents gleefully quote many of these communications.
When Mayor Sokolich reached out to Mr. Baroni and told him that children were unable to reach their schools for the first day of classes. Mr. Baroni refused to answer, but forwarded the message along to Ms. Kelly and Mr. Wildstein.
In a text exchange, Ms. Kelly allegedly asked, “Is it wrong that I am smiling?” Later, when she noted that she felt “badly about the kids,” Mr. Wildstein jokingly reassured her, saying, “They are the children of Buono voters.” This was in reference to Barbara Buono, one of Governor Christie’s opponents in the 2013 race.
The scheme purportedly continued even when Mayor Sokolich made clear that the traffic jams were preventing emergency vehicles from reaching their destinations. As a result, over the four days of lane closures, police and medical technicians were unable to respond to a report of a missing child and failed to help a man who suffered a cardiac arrest.
The situation was finally resolved when the Port Authority’s executive director stepped in and opened up all the lanes. He explained that he was cancelling the closures because the purported traffic study was being carried out improperly (typical traffic studies have little to no effect on current traffic patterns) and because Port Authority officials had given Fort Lee no advance notice of their plans, rendering them unable to mitigate the effects of the closures.
Then began the fallout.
Mr. Wildstein pleaded guilty to violating 18 U.S.C. § 666(a)(1)(A). This is a subsection of a very broad statute, Theft or Bribery Concerning Programs Receiving Federal Funds. This is the statute used to take down public officials such as Rod Blagojevich (former governor of Illinois) and Don Siegelman (former governor of Alabama).
Here’s the statute:
(a) Whoever, if the circumstance described in subsection (b) of this section exists—
(1) being an agent of an organization, or of a State, local, or Indian tribal government, or any agency thereof—
(A) embezzles, steals, obtains by fraud, or otherwise without authority knowingly converts to the use of any person other than the rightful owner or intentionally misapplies, property that—
(i) is valued at $5,000 or more, and
(ii) is owned by, or is under the care, custody, or control of such organization, government, or agency; or
(B) corruptly solicits or demands for the benefit of any person, or accepts or agrees to accept, anything of value from any person, intending to be influenced or rewarded in connection with any business, transaction, or series of transactions of such organization, government, or agency involving anything of value of $5,000 or more; or
(2) corruptly gives, offers, or agrees to give anything of value to any person, with intent to influence or reward an agent of an organization or of a State, local or Indian tribal government, or any agency thereof, in connection with any business, transaction, or series of transactions of such organization, government, or agency involving anything of value of $5,000 or more;
shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both.
Even DOJ admits that there can be a few issues with the breadth of the language. In the USAM, it states:
The broad language of 18 U.S.C. § 666(a)(1)(A) and its legislative history raise a significant issue regarding the scope of the statute. The primary issue is whether the statute prohibits only the illegal taking of Federal program funds or property acquired with Federal funds or whether the statute prohibits the illegal taking of any funds or property of an organization or of a state or local government agency that receives Federal assistance.
In some cases, local prosecutors will have both a strong incentive and the ability to prosecute crimes involving local programs receiving Federal funding. The advisability of a Federal prosecution under 18 U.S.C. § 666(a)(1)(A) should be carefully weighed against the likelihood that State prosecution will be sufficient to protect Federal interests.
The feds apparently decided that this was not a case for the state authorities and went after the three alleged co-conspirators.
The Port Authority receives substantial federal funding, well in excess of the $10,000 required by § 666.
The criminal information against Mr. Wildstein alleges that he used the employees of the Port Authority (such as engineers, police officers and an additional tollbooth worker) to implement the scheme. They were all unwitting participants.
The object of the conspiracy under § 666, according to the information, was
to misuse Port Authority property to facilitate and conceal the causing of traffic problems in Fort Lee as punishment of Mayor Sokolich.
The charge under 18 U.S.C. § 241 (conspiracy against civil rights) was that Mr. Wildstein:
knowingly and willfully conspired and agreed with others, including Baroni and Kelly, to injure and oppress the residents of Fort Lee in the free exercise and enjoyment of the rights and privileges secured to them by the Constitution and laws of the United States, namely, the right to localized travel on public roadways free from restrictions unrelated to legitimate government objectives.
Following his guilty plea, Mr. Wildstein faces a statutory maximum of 5 years for conspiracy to misuse Port Authority resources and 10 years for conspiracy against the civil rights of the people of Fort Lee to travel on public highways, which may run concurrently.
His plea agreement does not explicitly require him to cooperate with the government in any future investigations. Presumably, however, he will be a key witness against Ms. Kelly and Mr. Baroni. Under his terms of release, Mr. Wildstein may not have any contacts with “victims or potential witnesses,” so he won’t be in contact with either of his alleged co-conspirators anytime soon.
A sentencing date has not been set, further suggesting that he will continue to cooperate in the hope of leniency at sentencing. In fact, Mr. Wildstein signed his guilty plea in January. He has perhaps been cooperating against his co-conspirators for the last few months.
His information does not name any other individuals as directly involved, so once the cases against Ms. Kelly and Mr. Baroni are completed, this will likely be the end of Bridgegate. There’s no indication that former Governor Christie will be charged at this point, but you just never know.
[…] In September 2013, several highway access lanes from Fort Lee, New Jersey to the George Washington Bridge into New York City were suddenly closed. The mayor of Fort Lee had refused to support Governor Chris Christie’s bid for reelection. A political scandal was afoot. (A summary of the case is in my prior post here.) […]
[…] In North Jersey Media Group, Inc. v. United States, the Third Circuit addressed another interesting legal issue that arose within the Bridgegate scandal in New Jersey. You can read more about that case here. […]