Nobody will be held to account for the massively corrupt scheme of political retribution known as Bridgegate. Not former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, whose office ordered the closure of lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge in 2013 to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, after he refused to endorse the governor for reelection. Not Christie’s right-hand man, David Wildstein, who pleaded guilty to avoid serving time. And not Bridget Anne Kelly or Bill Baroni, the henchmen who orchestrated the lane closures.
That was the lesson of the unanimous Supreme Court ruling on May 7 overturning the convictions of Kelly and Baroni, who were the only people ever prosecuted for the scheme. Now everybody has gotten away with it, and Christie, whose proto-Trumpian pettiness set the stage for the entire corrupt disaster, still gets to keep his gig bloviating for ABC News.
In some respects, I’m glad Kelly and Baroni got out of their convictions. Oh, they’re guilty as hell. Both admitted that their goal was to cause traffic problems in Fort Lee, ultimately stranding schoolchildren and preventing first responders from going about their lifesaving duties. But for those two to go to prison while Wildstein, who masterminded the plot, got off with probation was unfair. Prosecutors are supposed to flip people to go up the chain of command. In this case, the prosecutors were so afraid of Christie that they flipped Wildstein to go down and imprison functionaries like Kelly and Baroni. There would have been no Bridgegate without Christie’s blessing or Wildstein’s direction. Since the prosecutors were too yellow-bellied to try to prove that in court, the choice to pick on Christie’s underlings was weak and cowardly.
Still, even though I believe the court reached a fair outcome, the way it got there puts another nail in the coffin of our public corruption laws. The court reasoned that Kelly and Baroni could not be convicted of fraud because there was no property or pecuniary interest at stake. Essentially, since neither received an envelope marked “Cash considerations for your corrupt endeavor,” the Supreme Court threw up its hands and threw out the case. It said that Kelly and Baroni had the regulatory authority to close lanes on the bridge, and even though the court acknowledged that they used that authority for a corrupt purpose, it concluded that the only actions that constitute a crime under the relevant federal laws are the receipt or misuse of money (or property) in furtherance of corruption.
That argument should sound familiar. It’s basically the same one Republicans made to defend Donald Trump when he was impeached for attempting to extort foreign help to influence the upcoming election. The president had the authority to withhold military aid from Ukraine, Republicans said. That he did so in exchange for a personal political favor was apparently irrelevant.
While the Republican-controlled Senate is responsible for turning a blind eye to Trump’s corruption, conservative and liberal justices appear united in the belief that courts should no longer be in the business of holding government officials to account for violating the public trust. The Bridgegate case is just the most recent example. In 2016 the court threw out a conviction against former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell. He received money and gifts from wealthy donors in exchange for access, but the court determined that mere access to public officials was not an “official act” that could sustain a public corruption charge. That ruling was also unanimous. Apparently, government officials need to strut around the Capitol wearing a “Votes 4 gold” sandwich board before they can be prosecuted.
Between McDonnell and Bridgegate, the Supreme Court is making clear that it thinks our anti-corruption laws no longer function. Speaking for the unanimous court in Bridgegate, Justice Elena Kagan wrote, “Not every corrupt act by state or local officials is a federal crime.” That statement is misleading. She should have written, “Not a single corrupt act can be construed as a federal crime anymore because nothing matters, LOL.” It’s almost impossible to imagine what kind of public corruption conviction this Supreme Court would let stand without massive changes to federal statutes.
While the nation’s highest court is busy overturning convictions, the rest of the justice system is trying to make sure that convictions never happen in the first place. In 2018 the Department of Justice dropped its corruption case against New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez; like McDonnell, Menendez was accused of taking campaign money in exchange for access. Then, in 2019, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Congress had no standing to sue Trump over his ongoing violations of the emoluments clause in the Constitution. So that clause becomes another rule the courts have rendered useless.
It’s an odd time for courts to be vitiating our public corruption laws. The first family has so many conflicts of interest that merely tracking them is a full-time job. Earlier this year, US senators got busy dumping stocks based on classified briefings about the novel coronavirus. And Attorney General William Barr is so slavishly beholden to Trump’s personal legal defense that he is refusing to prosecute Michael Flynn, who already pleaded guilty to a crime.
Then again, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by the Supreme Court. The court, under the allegedly institutionalist leadership of John Roberts, has refused to adopt any ethical guidelines governing the justices’ behavior while in office. Why should they impose ethical strictures on anybody else?
This country is being looted. The courts are letting it happen. So is the Justice Department. And the president? He’s leading the charge. In this fetid context, Kelly and Baroni absolutely deserve their freedom. The troll under the bridge has just as much a right to make a living in this putrefying kingdom as anybody else.