Gov. Chris Christie’s chief counsel, Christopher Porrino, allegedly intervened in an $8.9 billion environmental lawsuit to get a better deal for Exxon Mobil, which funded a political group that flew Christie and Porrino around the country last year.
On the day before Election Day last year Christie campaigned for five governors in five states, traveling via private plane supplied by the Republican Governors Association, which he chaired. He brought along his inner circle for this final leg of a long campaign season — including Porrino, one his one of his two highest ranking governmental aides.
The private jet that whisked them from Utica, Michigan, to New London, New Hampshire, and beyond was funded by the more than $100 million that Christie raised that year from RGA donors. Of that $500,000 came from Exxon Mobil, which was the 31st biggest contributor out of more than 1,300 people and corporations that gave to the RGA while Christie was chairman.
Less than a year later, according to an explosive new accusation by a former state environmental commissioner, Porrino intervened in an ongoing lawsuit between the state of New Jersey and Exxon Mobil, which was being sued to pay for extensive contamination at sites on 1,500 acres in Linden and Bayonne. Before a judge could rule on how much Exxon would have to pay, Christie’s attorney general asked the judge to delay a verdict because the state had suddenly settled with the company for a pittance of the money sought — $225 million.
Today, The New York Times ran an op-ed piece from Bradley M. Campbell, a former commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection who initiated the case:
The decision by the administration of Gov. Chris Christie to settle an environmental lawsuit against Exxon Mobil Corporation for roughly three cents on the dollar after more than a decade of litigation is an embarrassment to law enforcement and good government…
Former colleagues of mine in state government, where I served as commissioner of environmental protection from 2002 to 2006, have told me that Mr. Christie’s chief counsel inserted himself into the case, elbowed aside the attorney general and career employees who had developed and prosecuted the litigation, and cut the deal favorable to Exxon.
A spokesman for Christie, Kevin Roberts, called Campbell as a “known partisan” in an email to reporters today, noting he worked for Democratic and Republican governors.
“The notion that this settlement represents something less than what is fair for New Jerseyans is absurd and baseless when you consider the facts of the settlement and Campbell’s prior comments on this case,” Roberts wrote. He pointed to two 2006 articles quoting Campbell, one in which he said the lawsuit would only yield hundreds of millions of dollars and another in which he supported a settlement.
No one from Christie’s office has answered questions about the RGA connection to the story.
Legislative Democrats have already scheduled a hearing into the matter out of concern that Christie settled in order to both placate a Republican campaign donor as he’s preparing to run for president and also fill a budget hole with a quick $225 million. Last year, Christie inserted language into the budget that would allow him to use money from environmental lawsuits for the general fund; when Democrats took the provision out, he overruled them.
Porrino is a new member of the Christie inner circle who began making political trips with the governor late last year. In addition to criss-crossing the country the day before Election Day he accompanied Christie to the RGA’s annual meeting in Boca Raton, Florida, two weeks after that. It is not known if Exxon representatives were in attendance.
Porrino used to work at the Attorney General’s Office, where he was the director of the Division of Law overseeing civil cases — including the Exxon matter.
His first day in the governor’s office was Jan. 8, 2014, the day the infamous “time for some traffic problems” email was released. Hours later he found himself at Drumthwacket, the governor’s mansion, huddled with Christie’s closest advisers as they dealt with the Bridgegate crisis enveloping the administration. That’s where Porrino interviewed Christie’s former spokesman, Michael Drewniak, before the governor decided not to fire him.
But Porrino was also put in the unenviable task of firing Bridget Anne Kelly, the deputy chief of staff who wrote the email, a central piece of evidence in the ongoing federal investigation into who started the September 2013 George Washington Bridge lane closures and Fort Lee traffic jams.
Porrino is the only close aide within the administration not be interviewed by Christie’s lawyers for the so-called Mastro Report, an investigation by Christie’s lawyers into the scandal. Seventy-five people were interviewed, but Porrino, who is on par with the chief of staff as the top governmental aide to the governor, wasn’t among them.
Porrino is a former criminal defense attorney who represented Solomon Dwek, the central figure in perhaps the most famous poltiical corruption case that Christe handled in his former job as US Attorney of New Jersey. Porrino’s partner in private practice was Michael Himmel, who now represents former Port Authority official Bill Baroni, who is under federal invesgtigation for his role in Bridgegate.
The Attorney General’s Office released a statement acknowledging that “the governor’s office” was involved in final negotiations, “as with all cases of this magnitude.”
The statement said this “represents the single largest environmental settlement with a corporate defendant in New Jersey history,” and affirms “contamination from its refinery operations in Bayonne and Linden, as well as from company service stations and other facilities.” It said that Exxon Mobil was involved in the “active disposal and accidental spilling of hazardous substances.”
The settlement would go into effect after approval by a judge and a 30-day public comment period that is expected to begin next month. It requires that the company continue to pay for remediation work at the affected sites along with federal damages.