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Embattled Ethics Commission Confirms Samson Probe Underway

Panel clears CWA union leader after five-year battle, but sides with governor’s office on Pinelands pipeline vote recusal

Credit: Amanda Brown
Ethics Commission Chairman Andrew Berns.

In an unusually stormy meeting, the embattled state Ethics Commission placated union critics by taking the unusual step of confirming that it is investigating former Port Authority Chairman David Samson and by dropping a five-year-old ethics complaint against a state union leader. But the panel also sided with the governor’s office by issuing a ruling that would bar a prominent environmentalist voting on a controversial Pinelands pipeline represented by Samson’s law firm.

For Ethics Commission Chairman Andrew Berns, the media scrutiny and the testy exchanges with leaders of the Working Families Alliance coalition and the red-shirted Communications Workers of America union that marked yesterday’s meeting were an unwelcome change from years of quiet commission sessions attended by a respectful lawyer or two.

“There has never been a suggestion prior to the last 45 days in my three-and-a-half years that any of my staff or commissioners do anything but treat every case individually,” Berns insisted, bristling with displeasure. “They don’t look at the political persuasion of the people making the complaints or the people being complained about.”

It was actually 50 days ago that the Working Families Alliance filed ethics complaints against Samson, Christie’s trusted political adviser, spurring renewed questions about the commission’s independence and ability to investigate Christie administration wrongdoing. The conflict-of-interest allegations against Samson, which are also under investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Manhattan, came in the wake of a series of Ethics Commission controversies:

  • An Ethics Commission ruling issued in early January at the request of the governor’s office that barred Edward Lloyd, an environmentalist serving on the Pinelands Commission, from casting what was expected to be a critical vote on an application to build a 22-mile gas pipeline through the Pinelands preserve. Despite Lloyd’s recusal, the pipeline failed to win approval in a 7-7 tie vote that marked a rare defeat for the Christie administration.

  • The Ethics Commission’s appointment of Christie’s choice, Susana Espasa Guerrero, to serve as the agency’s new executive director. Guerrero was appointed in late January even though she had served as assistant counsel in the governor’s office with nine administration officials who had just been subpoenaed by a legislative committee in the Bridgegate scandal, which could end up before the Ethics Commission.

  • Calls by Seton Hall University Law Professor Paula Franzese and former Sen. William Schluter (R-Hunterdon), who had served as chair and vice chair of the Ethics Commission, to replace the current ethics panel -- which is made up of three Christie administration officials and four public members appointed by the governor -- with a commission made up entirely of public members whose appointment would be subject to review and confirmation by the state Senate.

It was against that political backdrop that the Ethics Commission convened for its April meeting yesterday, with several dozen union activists chanting in protest on the street five stories below.

Berns repeatedly told the union leaders and activists that filled the small hearing room that the commission does not allow comments from the public, then cleared the room for a two-hour closed executive session to discuss pending cases.

Credit: Amanda Brown
Hetty Rosenstein, state director for the Communications Workers of America (CWA), sitting next to Dudley Burdge, a longtime CWA senior staff representative.

But after the commission returned to public session, Analilia Mejia, director of the union–dominated Working Families Alliance, and Hetty Rosenstein, state director for the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the state government’s largest union, kept shouting out questions to Berns about the status of the alliance’s complaint against Samson.

Berns, clearly frustrated, kept saying he could not even confirm that the complaint had been received, but Guerrero finally got up, walked the length of the conference table, and whispered in his ear.

“I am permitted to tell you, in fact, that we have received the complaint,” Berns said, as Guerrero took her seat. “And the complaint has a docket number and is being investigated.”

Berns’ comment is likely to be the last public statement from the Ethics Commission until the case is resolved after an investigation that is likely to take months.

Conflicts of Interest

The complaint alleges that Samson broke the New Jersey Conflicts of Interest Law by voting to approve the Port Authority’s $256 million renovation of the Harrison PATH station, a $7.5 million World Trade Center contract, and a $1-a-year, 49-year sweetheart lease on a parking lot for New Jersey Transit -- all of which benefited clients of his Wolff and Samson law firm. The complaint also charges that Samson improperly pushed for the Port Authority to take over operation of Atlantic City Airport from another of his law firm’s clients.

Mejia said after the meeting that she was “incredibly pleased, but pleasantly surprised” that Berns confirmed that the Ethics Commission was investigating the Samson complaint, and that it was “not being swept under the rug.”

While investigations into Samson’s role in Bridgegate and other Port Authority-related cases makes national headlines, the CWA activists turned out in large numbers yesterday not to support the Working Families Alliance -- of which CWA is a part -- but to back Dudley Burdge, a longtime CWA senior staff representative who has been battling an ethics charge for almost five years, and to support Edward Lloyd, a Pinelands Commission member who had been forced to recuse himself on a controversial pipeline vote.

CWA activists carried posters reading “I didn’t shut down a bridge or make millions for my law firm. I just made a phone call. Drop the Charge!”

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