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The U.S. Supreme Court has unanimously reversed the convictions of two aides to former New Jersey governor, Chris Christie. The aides were tied up in the so-called Bridgegate scandal. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: In September 2013, chaos ensued when New Jersey state officials ordered the closing of two out of three access lanes under the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee, N.J. For four days, school buses and ambulances alike were trapped for hours in gridlock. Ultimately, the public would learn that top officials in the administration of Republican Governor Chris Christie ordered the lane closure to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., for refusing to endorse Republican Christie's reelection bid.
Christie professed ignorance and fired top aides, three of whom were convicted in the affair. Among them was Bridget Kelly, his former deputy chief of staff.
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BRIDGET KELLY: I will not allow myself to be the scapegoat in this case, and I look very much forward to the appeal.
TOTENBERG: Her conviction was unanimously upheld by a federal appeals court. But today, the Supreme Court, also unanimously, disagreed. Writing for the court, Justice Elena Kagan said that because the aides involved in the case did not obtain money or property for themselves, they didn't violate the fraud statute under which they were prosecuted. Governor Christie, in an interview with NPR today, suggested that but for the prosecution, he might well have been the Republican candidate for president in 2016 since he was leading in the GOP primary polls until the scandal broke.
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CHRIS CHRISTIE: I certainly was when it happened, so, you know, no one knows what would have happened from then on, but certainly we know what the state of play was at the time all this happened.
TOTENBERG: Christie also blasted the U.S. attorney who signed off on the prosecution, Paul Fishman, accusing him of self-promotion and misconduct. President Trump echoed that sentiment, tweeting congratulations to Christie and his former aides and calling the prosecution grave misconduct by the Obama Justice Department.
That, however, is not what the Supreme Court said in its opinion. Rather, the court detailed at length the sleaziness of the aides' conduct, declaring that for no reason other than political payback, Kelly and others had jeopardized public safety. But, the court said, not every corrupt act by state and local officials is a federal crime. And because the aides involved in the scheme here did not obtain money or property, they didn't violate the federal fraud laws.
The decision is the latest wrinkle in a series of recent decisions by the court making it increasingly difficult to prosecute public officeholders who abuse their power but fail to personally enrich themselves. In this case, there were costs to the state government from the scheme - extra pay for toll collectors and a fake traffic study ordered after the fact to justify the lane closures. But such incidental costs, the court said, are not enough. Still, experts in public corruption said prosecutors can live with the court's ruling.
DANIEL RICHMAN: I don't imagine that today's opinion will prove much of an impediment in the prosecution of corruption cases in the future.
TOTENBERG: Columbia University law professor Daniel Richman specializes in white-collar criminal law.
RICHMAN: Federal prosecutors in those cases will, however, need to take pains to highlight how whatever corrupt scheme they're laying out didn't have merely incidental economic effects.
TOTENBERG: The Supreme Court's opinion, he suggests, is not a repudiation of prosecutorial misconduct. Rather, he said, it's the newest wrinkle in the modern court's view of the law. Congress, of course, could try to rewrite the statutes to allow such prosecutions. But, as Richman observes, Congress did that in the very statute under which these defendants were prosecuted.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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