This past January, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that has the potential to make it significantly harder for federal prosecutors to enforce public integrity laws. That case, Kelly v. United States, centers on whether two associates of former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Bridgette Kelly and Bill Baroni, committed criminal fraud within the meaning of a federal statute codified at 18 U.S.C. § 666 (sometimes referred to simply as §666). Section 666 prohibits government agents from “knowingly or intentionally misapply[ing] property that is valued at $5,000 or more” and owned by an agency that receives over $10,000 in federal funding during any one-year period. Federal prosecutors argued that Kelly and Baroni violated §666 when they lied in connection with using public funds and property to carry out political retaliation against a New Jersey mayor who had refused to endorse Governor Christie. The alleged retaliation involved creating traffic jams by closing lanes on a major bridge (hence the moniker “Bridgegate”) using the trumped-up excuse that the lane closure was for a “traffic study.”
Kelly and Baroni were convicted at trial, but they are arguing on appeal that the prosecutors’ interpretation of §666 embraces an “astoundingly expansive theory of criminal fraud,” under which any public official could be indicted “on nothing more than the (ubiquitous) allegation that she lied in claiming to act in the public interest.” If Kelly and Baroni convince the Supreme Court to interpret §666 more narrowly, this could be the most significant change in U.S. public corruption law since the Court’s decision in McDonnell v. United States.