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Samson Embroiled in Second Set of Christie Scandal Allegations

Grifa and Wolff & Samson issued a statement saying the firm’s legal work for the Rockefeller Group has been “appropriate in all respects,” while Samson has turned down all interview requests since Bridgegate broke.

Since Bridgegate, Samson’s close relationship with Christie has been a subject of repeated complaints by environmentalists concerned with Samson’s representation of powerful utility companies before state agencies whose board members and executive directors Christie gets to appoint as existing terms expire.

An Unwelcome Auditor

Even before the Zimmer allegations, Christie’s selection of Wolff & Samson as one of several law firms to audit the propriety of Sandy expenditures created a furor. “You have a firm that has so many political connections to the people they’re supposed to audit,” noted Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey. “Given the closeness to the administration, how independent will they be?” he asked, likening the selection of Wolff & Samson to a wolf guarding a henhouse. “I think this raises a serious question and a need for review,” said the Housing and Community Development Network’s Staci Berger. “You can’t have anything that even looks remotely like you’re involved, whether you are or not. You need to have both the arm’s length ability to review and the appearance of an arm’s length.” Tittel and David Pringle, director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, charged that the Christie administration employed strong-arm tactics last week on behalf of another project represented by Wolff & Samson, a plan by South Jersey Gas to run a pipeline across 22 miles of protected preserve to connect with its BL England plant.

Christie’s Attorney General’s Office contacted board member Ed Lloyd, who serves as codirector of the Eastern Environmental Law Center, saying he would have to recuse himself on what was expected to be a close vote because his nonprofit had written a letter to the Pinelands Commission asking for another public hearing on the pipeline. Lloyd, who never saw the letter that was retracted a day later, said the Pinelands Commission’s executive director told him the governor’s office then went to the state Ethics Commission to get an order advising him to recuse himself from the vote. Despite Lloyd’s removal, the motion to approve the pipeline failed by a 7-7 tie vote in a rare defeat for the Christie administration.

Major Utility Cases

Since the advent of the Christie administration, Wolff & Samson also has been involved in two of the most important utility cases before the New Jersey Board of Utilities.

The firm is representing Public Service Electric & Gas in its bid to win approval from the BPU for its petition to spend $3.9 billion over the next decade to harden its power grid to prevent widespread outages like those that occurred during Hurricane Sandy. The proposal is very contentious pitting consumer advocates and large manufacturers against the utility and many towns, which want to see the upgrades happen.

The law firm also helped the utility win approval for a $193 million Solar Loan program, a proposal approved by the BPU last year. The program is designed to help residential, commercial, and other customers install solar arrays on their homes and businesses.

John Valeri, the attorney representing Wolff & Samson in the so-called Energy Strong case to harden PSE&G’s power grid against future superstorms, is former acting general environmental counsel to PSEG Services Corp., a subsidiary, like PSE&G, of Newark-based Public Services Enterprise Group, and a former chief of staff at the BPU.

Valeri’s representation of PSE&G, like Grifa’s representation of the Rockefeller Group in its redevelopment case in Hoboken, is a typical example of the “revolving door” through which top lawyers move back and forth between government and the private sector, limited only by a one-year ban on representing clients before governmental agencies with which they worked and and where they often developed strong personal connections with high-ranking officials who remained.

Grifa, who joined Wolff & Samson in 1997 and was Samson’s chief of staff in 2002 and 2003 when he served as Attorney General under Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey, was chosen by Christie to serve in his Cabinet as Community Affairs commissioner, a position that oversees the operations of the state’s 21 county governments, 565 municipalities, and hundreds of municipal authorities. As Christie’s transition chairman, Samson had direct input in recommending and vetting Cabinet appointments.

Grifa quickly met Zimmer, the new mayor of Hoboken who was one of the more prominent local government supporters of the 2 percent cap and the pension overhaul pushed jointly by Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester). Zimmer, in fact, hosted Christie’s first Town Hall meeting in her city.

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