In a case that will mark the first test of the state Ethics Commission’s ability to handle charges against top Christie administration appointees, the New Jersey Working Families Alliance yesterday filed conflict-of-interest allegations against Port Authority Chairman David Samson, charging that he improperly voted on contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars to his law firm’s clients.
“David Samson repeatedly violated the public trust by weighing in and sometimes voting on matters that enriched clients of his law firm,” said Analilia Mejia, executive director of the Working Families Alliance, a coalition of 16 labor and progressive groups. “The Port Authority has a $4 billion budget and manages the commutes of millions. It needs an effective leader untainted by scandal.”
The coalition filed charges alleging 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 for a parking lot — 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 clients..
The Working Families Alliance filed its complaint with the state Ethics Commission, which came under fire last month after NJ Spotlight revealed that the board voted secretly to approve Gov. Chris Christie’s choice of a new executive director who had served in the governor’s office with nine Christie appointees who were subpoenaed by the legislative committee investigating the Bridgegate scandal.
The new executive director, Susana Espasa Guerrero, who had worked as a young lawyer at the same law firm as Christie and William Palatucci, the governor’s most trusted political counselor, was named to serve as an Associate Counsel in the governor’s office after being vetted by Christie’s transition team, which was headed by Samson, who had served as Christie’s campaign counsel.
Seton Hall Law Professor Paula Franzese and former state Sen. William Schluter (R-Hunterdon), two leading ethics advocates who had served as chair and vice chair of the Ethics Commission, both questioned Guerrero’s appointment at the time. They also questioned the ability of the seven-member commission — made up of five Republicans, including three top Christie administration officials, and two Democrats, all appointed by Christie — to judge ethics complaints against Christie’s top staffers in a politically charged environment.
If the Ethics Commission finds Samson guilty of violating the New Jersey Conflicts of Interest Law, the panel could impose a fine of up to $10,000 on the former state Attorney General, censure or reprimand him, remove him from his post as chairman of the Port Authority, and ban him from serving in public office for up to five years.
Samson’s lawyer, Angelo Genova, issued a statement yesterday expressing confidence that his client would be exonerated by the Ethics Commission.
Samson’s political and legal connections are among the most far-reaching of the two dozen Christie administration and campaign aides named in the various scandals that are under investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Investigations, the Port Authority’s Office of the Inspector General, a U.S. Senate transportation committee, and the Christie administration’s own special counsel.
Wayne Hasenbalg, the head of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority who serves on the Ethics Commission, might have to recuse himself from the Samson investigation because Samson’s law firm, Wolff and Samson, represents Triple Five, the Canadian company trying to relaunch the stalled Xanadu megamall complex at the Meadowlands Sports Complex.
Samson’s law firm was also in the middle of a controversy involving the Ethics Commission itself two month ago, when the governor’s office asked the commission to issue a ruling barring Ed Lloyd, a respected environmental lawyer serving on the Pinelands Commission, from voting on an application by South Jersey Gas to build a pipeline across a protected Pinelands preserve. Even with Lloyd not voting, the pipeline plan failed to win approval due to a 7-7 tie vote. it was a rare defeat for both the Christie administration and the Wolff and Samson law firm, which represented Rockland Capital, the owner of the BL England power plant that the South Jersey Gas pipeline would have been built to serve.
Samson, whose law firm’s lobbying and bonding business has skyrocketed since Christie’s election, is in the middle of the two most serious scandals that have rocked the Christie administration in the eight weeks since the governor acknowledged that his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, ordered the controversial George Washington Bridge lane closures in apparent retaliation against Fort Lee’s mayor for refusing to endorse Christie for reelection.
Samson’s efforts to quash public disclosure of the reasons for the George Washington Bridge lane closures are believed to be a principal focus of the Bridgegate coverup investigations by the Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Investigations and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The U.S. Attorney also is investigating allegations by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer that Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno threatened to withhold Sandy aid from her city unless she pushed through approval for a high-rise development represented by Wolff and Samson that Christie wanted built.
The feasibility study for the Rockefeller Group project in Hoboken was paid for by a Port Authority grant that Zimmer said she was urged to seek by state Community Affairs Commissioner Lori Grifa, who worked for Samson’s law firm both before and after her two-year stint in the Christie administration. But that’s not one of the ethics violations the Working Families Alliance is asking the Ethics Commission to investigate.
The Working Families Alliance specifically charged Samson, as Port Authority chairman, with violating the provisions of the New Jersey Conflicts of Interest Law that requires a public official to absolutely and completely recuse himself from any matters in which he has a direct or indirect financial interest. According to the alliance, Samson violated the law in the following four cases:
“Simply by reviewing David Samson’s public acts and statements we have identified four clear violations of the code of ethics he is obligated to uphold,” said Mejia. “We are calling on the State Ethics Commission to thoroughly investigate each of these allegations and hold Mr. Samson accountable for his breach of the public trust.”
The Working Families Alliance’s complaint comes on the heels of Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye’s comment that Samson lacks the “moral authority” to lead the bistate agency.
Yesterday’s ethics complaints followed a report by The Record of Hackensack on Sunday that Samson and Christie’s top two political lieutenants at the Port Authority, Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni and Director of Interstate Capital Projects David Wildstein, met with Christie in advance to discuss Baroni’s and Wildstein’s secret plan to propose a massive Port Authority toll hike in August 2011.
The cynical ploy was to give Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo political cover to publicly attack the size of the toll hike as outrageous, then approve the smaller toll hike that both governors actually wanted.
Wildstein and Baroni both resigned in December after being subpoenaed by the Assembly Transportation Committee, and Christie fired Bridget Kelly, the deputy chief of staff who conspired with Wildstein on the George Washington Bridge lane closures, and his former campaign manager Bill Stepien.
However, Christie met with Samson after the release of the Kelly email and pronounced himself satisfied that Samson did nothing wrong — despite emails showing that he actively tried to suppress leaks to the press about Bridgegate that he thought were coming from Foye.