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SCOTUS Overturns Bridgegate Convictions, Affirms That Not All Corruption Can Be Prosecuted Under Federal Fraud Statutes

In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court overturned the criminal convictions of the ‘Bridgegate’ co-conspirators, and ruled that government corruption in the exercise of regulatory power cannot be prosecuted as wire fraud. The case sends a strong message to federal prosecutors to avoid criminalizing political misdeeds, unless those deeds amount to bribery or kickbacks.

The facts of the case are now infamous: in 2013, officials of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a bi-state agency that administers the bridges and tunnels leading to Manhattan, shut down several lanes of Manhattan-bound traffic on the George Washington Bridge in order to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey. The officials, who had been appointed by then-Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, shut the lanes to exact revenge on Fort Lee’s mayor because he would not endorse Christie’s bid for re-election.

As a result of the shutdown, traffic in Fort Lee came to a standstill; buses could not get children to school, an ambulance had difficulty responding to a heart attack victim, and the police had trouble responding to calls. After four days of gridlock, the Port Authority’s Executive Director found out what had happened and re-opened the lanes. The three officials involved lost their jobs, and were eventually prosecuted under the federal wire fraud statute and the federal-program fraud statute. One of the officials cut a deal with prosecutors, while the other two proceeded to trial and were convicted of “property fraud.” They appealed their convictions to the court of appeals and then the Supreme Court.

In order to prove property fraud, the government was required to show that the defendants engaged in a scheme “to deprive [the victim of] money or property” or that the “property” of a federally funded entity, such as the Port Authority, was “obtain[ed] by fraud.” The officials were convicted on the theory that by blocking the traffic lanes, they were physically commandeering the Port Authority’s property. Similarly, because the lane realignment required the Port Authority to pay for an additional toll collector, prosecutors argued that the extra wages were the Port Authority’s property that the officials obtained by fraud. The two officials were convicted under these theories, and the Third Circuit upheld the convictions.

The Supreme Court reversed. In a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Kagan, the Supreme Court held that the physical commandeering of the traffic lanes and the additional wages paid to the toll collector did not qualify as property fraud under the federal statutes because obtaining this property was not the aim or object of the scheme. Rather, the aim of the Bridgegate conspiracy was an exercise of regulatory power, which the Court held in Cleveland v. United States, 531 U.S. 12 (2000) does not constitute property fraud.

The misuse of the traffic lanes, and the cost to the Port Authority in extra wages, were incidental to the ultimate object of the Bridgegate scheme — to alter the traffic pattern to punish a political rival. This object may have been corrupt, but it was not wire fraud or federal-program fraud. Finding otherwise, the Court ruled, would allow the federal government to “use the criminal law to enforce (its view of) integrity in broad swaths of state and local policymaking.” This does not mean public corruption cannot be prosecuted, it simply means that such actions are not property fraud as defined by federal law, and that federal and state prosecutors must use other means to punish such conduct.

This information is provided by Vinson & Elkins LLP for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal advice.