Supreme Court curtails federal public corruption prosecutions in "Bridgegate" case

On May 7, 2020, in the case of Kelly v. United States, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed the federal fraud convictions for the defendants involved with the closely watched "Bridgegate" scandal.

In the opinion by Justice Elena Kagan, the Court ruled that former officials connected to then-New Jersey governor Chris Christie's administration did not violate federal laws prohibiting wire fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1343) and fraud on a federally funded program (18 U.S.C. § 666(a)(1)(A)) because their "scheme . . . did not aim to obtain money or property" from the victim – here, the Port Authority – as required under Supreme Court precedent. The Court found that although the evidence demonstrated that the defendants' conduct constituted "wrongdoing – deception, corruption, [and] abuse of power," not every such corrupt act by a state or local official amounts to a federal crime.

The Court thus reaffirmed that, absent some scheme to obtain property, lies during government decision-making do not amount to a federal property fraud crime. To hold otherwise, the Court said, would result in a "sweeping expansion of federal criminal jurisdiction."

Among other consequences, this ruling will constrain federal prosecutors' ability to successfully bring criminal fraud cases against public officials who purportedly lie about the reasons behind official actions – even where, for instance, a defendant is alleged to have jeopardized public safety for the sole purpose of political payback. This conceivably undermines pending investigations and prosecutions for federal property fraud. For defendants, this decision highlights the importance and potential payoff of challenging the government's legal theory from the earliest stages of a case and of properly preserving issues for appellate review. For prosecutors, this decision may serve as a caution against more assertive uses of federal fraud statutes to police what amounts to ill-advised political conduct.

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