For the past three decades, David Samson has been one of New Jersey’s power lawyers, a class of power brokers who operate behind closed doors in the highest interlocking circles of government and business, moving in and out of top government posts while collecting six-figure fees for representing powerful business interests before state and local government agencies.
Today, Samson, the Port Authority chairman, is a focal point of no fewer than five investigations into Bridgegate and its coverup. The mayor of Hoboken has charged that Christie administration officials threatened to hold up Sandy aid if she didn’t win approval for an office tower Samson’s law firm represents. And environmentalists and housing advocates are attacking his firm’s selection as an auditor for Sandy recovery funds, comparing it to putting a fox in charge of the henhouse.
Samson has already been subpoenaed by the Assembly Select Committee on Investigations in regard to Bridgegate, and he and his firm can expect another set of subpoenas from the U.S. Attorney’s Office or legislative panels investigating the Hoboken allegations.
For Samson, the powerful lawyer who managed to stay largely out of the public eye even when he served as state Attorney General — the opposite of brash U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, who was in office at the same time — the crush of negative publicity has to be unnerving.
Samson was closing in on 70 when Christie was setting up his run for governor, giving Samson one last chance to play the game at the highest level. The former state Attorney General and former general counsel to the New Jersey Turnpike Authority emerged as one of Christie’s most powerful advisers, serving first as campaign counsel for his winning 2009 campaign, then as chairman of his transition team, and finally taking a top spot as chairman of the Port Authority a year later.
And when Christie emerged as a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, Samson was there too, part of the inner circle that accompanied Christie to the Republican National Convention when he gave the nominating speech for Mitt Romney in 2012 and to Arizona when he took over as chairman of the Republican Governors Association last year.
Caught in the Spotlight
Today, as an embattled Christie prepares to deliver his Second Inaugural Address with his administration facing no fewer than five investigations over Bridgegate and new allegations that top officials threatened to withhold Sandy aid from Hoboken unless a development project was approved, Samson finds himself in an unwelcome public spotlight as a focal figure in both controversies.
Samson, the lone survivor of the political troika Christie put in place at the Port Authority, hired Michael Chertoff, the former U.S. Homeland Security chief, to defend him after he was subpoenaed by the Assembly Select Committee on Investigations. The basis of the subpoena: emails showing that Samson tried to suppress public disclosure of how and why Port Authority officials acted secretively in closing lanes leading into the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee for four days last September.
Then this weekend, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer charged that Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno threatened to withhold Sandy aid from Hoboken unless she made sure that the city council overruled the Planning Board to approve a Rockefeller Group office tower redevelopment project represented by Samson’s law firm, Wolff & Samson, and being shepherded personally by Samson’s longtime protégé, former Community Affairs Commissioner Lori Grifa.
Zimmer, who met with and turned over documents to the U.S. Attorney’s Office Sunday, said Guadagno told her on May 13 she had been with Christie the preceding Friday night — two days after the Hoboken Planning Board rejected the Rockefeller Group project — and that “the project was very important to the governor.” Zimmer said Guadagno “made a direct threat” that the level of Sandy aid Hoboken would receive was tied to approval of the redevelopment project. “I know it shouldn’t be, but they are and if you tell anyone about it, I’ll deny it,” Zimmer quoted Guadagno as saying.
Guadagno yesterday read a prepared statement at a press conference in Union Beach denying that she had ever threatened to withhold Sandy aid. “Frankly, I am surprised that Mayor Zimmer has chosen to mischaracterize a conversation I had with her about development and job creation in Hoboken.”
Before reading her statement, Guadagno told reporters twice she would not be taking questions, unlike Christie, who answered questions about Bridgegate for 108 minutes at a January 9 press conference. Nor did she deny Zimmer’s allegation that the Christie administration had pressured her to put her support behind the Rockefeller Group project that the Samson law firm represented and had put subtle pressure on the city’s planning attorney to approve.
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.
According to Zimmer, it was Grifa who encouraged Zimmer to apply for a $75,000 grant from the Port Authority to conduct a study about what to do with a 19-acre tract being considered for redevelopment in northern Hoboken.
Zimmer met with Bill Baroni, the Port Authority deputy executive director whom Christie relied upon along with Samson and director of interstate capital projects David Wildstein to oversee New Jersey’s interests at the bistate agency. The Port Authority agreed to approve a Local Assistance Grant for the study and awarded it to the firm of Clarke Caton Hintz.
It was not until early 2013, while Hoboken was still recovering after being 80 percent flooded by superstorm Sandy, that the firm recommended that only the three acres owned by the Rockefeller Group were suitable for redevelopment.
By this time, Grifa had rejoined Wolff & Samson after a two-year stint in the Cabinet and, after refraining from participating in cases before state and local government agencies for the required year, she was now representing the Rockefeller Group in its application in Hoboken as the firm’s director of regulatory affairs.
Friend and Trusted Colleague?
Christie had lauded Grifa as a friend and trusted colleague when she left state government, but criticized her six months later after reporters forced his administration to acknowledge that nearly $300 million in federal aid to help homeowners avert foreclosure sat unclaimed for almost a year because the anti-fraud measures set by Grifa’s agency prevented virtually anyone from qualifying.
“Sometimes, I know it’s going to be shocking for everyone to hear, government doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to,” Christie said famously.
According to emails that presumably were among the documents Zimmer turned over to the U.S. Attorney, the city’s planning attorney felt pressured by Grifa’s request that he hold a conference call with her and the powerful Samson, and by her assumption that the project would be approved and fast-tracked for development. The planning attorney refused to take the call.
When the Hoboken Planning Board finally voted on May 8, it heeded the objections of the lawyer representing owners of the other 16 blocks in the redevelopment area and did not recommend approval of the Rockefeller Group project. However, the City Council would get to make the final decision.
It was five days later, on May 13, Zimmer alleged, that Guadagno told Zimmer she had met with Christie and he wanted the Rockefeller Group project approved or the administration would hold up needed Sandy aid. Three days later, on May 16, Zimmer said that Grifa’s successor, state Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable, also told her that he had heard she was opposed to the Rockefeller Group project and should support it if she wanted to get aid money flowing.
Both Guadagno and Constable denied Zimmer’s account of their discussions in statements issued yesterday and over the weekend.
As to the Rockefeller Group proposal to build an office tower on the site, its redevelopment plan remains in limbo, as do the plans of those who own the other 16 acres of the 19-acre site. “We have no knowledge of any information pertaining to this allegation,” the Rockefeller Group said in a statement issued over the weekend. “If it turns out to be true it would be deplorable.”
Meanwhile, how Samson will end his public service career also remains in limbo. Wildstein, the Port Authority appointee who ordered the lane closures at the apparent direction of Bridget Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, has resigned, as has Baroni. Kelly was fired by Christie, who also severed ties with Bill Stepien, the campaign manager with whom Samson worked closely as campaign counsel in 2009.
Samson is definitely near the top of the list of Christie administration officials who will be called in to testify publicly by the Assembly Select Committee on Investigations chaired by Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) and/or the Senate panel chaired by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), which meets tomorrow to discuss subpoenas.
Samson’s colleague, Wildstein, the first to testify under oath, took the Fifth Amendment more than 30 times. That’s a prospect Samson, a former attorney general, would certainly like to avoid.
Scott Gurian contributed to this story.