Judge Denies Motion to Dismiss the “Bridgegate” Indictment and Permits Novel Application of Anti-Bribery Statute
On June 13, 2016, United States District Judge Susan D. Wigenton denied the defense’s motions to dismiss charges arising out of the so-called “Bridgegate” scandal. United States v. Baroni, No. 15-cr-193, slip op. at 1 (D.N.J. June 13, 2016).
In the “Bridgegate” case, prosecutors from the United States Attorneys’ Office for the District of New Jersey (“USAO”) charged William “Bill” Baroni, the former Deputy Executive Director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and Bridget Kelly, former Deputy Chief of Staff for the Office of the Governor of New Jersey, in a nine-count Indictment. The charges relate to the defendants’ alleged closure of local access lanes on the George Washington Bridge as punishment to the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey for refusing to endorse New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s re-election campaign. The charges include two counts of a federal anti-bribery/embezzlement statute; five counts of wire fraud; and two counts of civil rights-related charges.
The defense raised legal challenges to all nine counts. In denying this motion, Judge Wigenton made clear that many of the issues raised were ones of fact, which the jury would decide after trial. Judge Wigenton did, however, interpret Title 18, United States Code, Section 666, which often is used in charges against public officials. That statute prohibits public officials from, among other things, embezzling or misapplying property that is under government control. The core defense contention was that there was no “personal benefit” that inured to the defendants in exchange for the alleged Bridge lane closures, which made the key charges deficient.
Judge Wigenton rejected the proposition that Section 666 required that a public official receive a personal benefit, and ruled that the USAO needed to show that the defendants “misapplied” public property, which could include any improper use, whether or not for personal gain. The Judge held that the Indictment’s charges that the defendants used access lanes, tollbooths, and Port Authority personnel for political retribution was a sufficient allegation of a violation of Section 666. Judge Wigenton also ruled that the defendants’ alleged diversion of Port Authority personnel to do work that was not part of the agent’s “usual course of business” was a sufficient property right implicated by Section 666. As noted above, however, the Judge made clear that the rulings were confined to whether the Indictment’s allegations—assumed to be true—properly alleged the elements of the federal crimes. The Judge noted that many disputed issues of fact would be resolved by the fact-finder.
The USAO’s use of Section 666 and related statutes has been closely watched in this case, because it involves a unique set of facts. This, of course, is against the backdrop of a landscape in which public corruption cases have expanded. Such decisions are becoming of greater import and applicability, as public corruption cases in recent years have gone beyond plain vanilla bribes to public officials, and extended to complicated allegations of favoritism and quid pro quos in connection with multi-million dollar public contracts and public work projects.