Gov. Chris Christie yesterday formally nominated a former top aide and legal adviser, who’s won praise from legislative leaders of both parties, to serve as New Jersey’s next attorney general.
The governor’s decision to submit the nomination of Christopher Porrino of Union County to the Senate means the state’s top law-enforcement job should soon be filled by an attorney general who’s gone through the full legislative confirmation process spelled out in the state constitution.
For the past three years, the office has been filled by interim attorneys general, who have served at the pleasure of the governor. This has opened the Christie administration to questions from lawmakers about the independence of one of state government’s most important cabinet roles.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said he expects a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to review Porrino’s nomination as early as next month. Porrino served as Christie’s chief counsel from early 2014 to July of last year. Many lawmakers, including Sweeney, are already very familiar with him.
Announcing the nomination in the State House yesterday afternoon, Christie called Porrino, who also served in the attorney general’s office as the director of the Division of Law from 2012 to 2014, one of “the most respected members of the New Jersey legal community.”
“He’s open, he’s honest, he’s tough and he’s forthright,” Christie said. “All the type of things you’d want in an attorney general.”
The current acting attorney general is Robert Lougy, who’s been serving in the position since March. Christie nominated Lougy for a Superior Court judgeship in Essex County last month, meaning he could be leaving at any time if he wins Senate confirmation. Before that, John Hoffman served as acting attorney general; he left to take a position with Rutgers University.
The last state attorney general to go through the full Senate confirmation process was Jeffrey Chiesa, who served for less than two years before Christie picked him in June 2013 to temporarily fill the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg. Chiesa is now in private practice.
At one point, Christie had selected his former chief of staff Kevin O’Dowd to serve as attorney general. But O’Dowd’s late 2013 nomination stalled amid the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal known as Bridgegate, and it was eventually dropped altogether as questions were raised about O’Dowd’s handling of the scandal. He is now the senior executive vice president and chief administrative officer for Cooper University Health Care.
Porrino joined Christie’s front-office staff as chief counsel in early 2014, just as news broke that former deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly had sent an email the previous August to a top Christie ally at the Port Authority declaring it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” Christie responded to that revelation by firing Kelly.
Federal prosecutors have alleged the September 2013 lane closures were carried out by Kelly and former top Port Authority officials with ties to Christie to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing Christie’s 2013 reelection campaign. Kelly and former Port Authority official Bill Baroni are now facing a federal corruption trial. Another former Port Authority official, David Wildstein, has already pleaded guilty to corruption charges.
The governor has steadfastly maintained he had no prior knowledge of the lane closures, which created major traffic jams for several days in Fort Lee. He did not mention the Bridgegate scandal during yesterday’s announcement, but he said he was lucky to have Porrino coming back into his administration. “He provided me with great guidance and wisdom through some very challenging times,” Christie said.
Head of the national litigation practice for Lowenstein Sandler, a powerhouse law firm based in Roseland, Porrino is a graduate of Lehigh University and of Seton Hall University Law School. He worked in Lowenstein Sandler’s litigation department for eight years before joining the Christie administration in 2012. “I am honored and truly humbled to have this opportunity to return to public service,” he said yesterday. “I look forward to appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee and I want to thank Gov. Christie for his continued expression of confidence in me.”
Under the state constitution, the governor has the authority to nominate an attorney general, but a candidate cannot serve in anything other than an acting capacity until first winning approval from the Senate. The confirmation process includes an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and then, if approved, a vote before the full Senate.
Christie said yesterday that Porrino will initially serve as acting attorney general pending a judiciary committee hearing that he hopes will be held within the next few weeks.
Democratic lawmakers were highly critical in the past of Christie’s decision to not formally nominate either Hoffman or Lougy, saying that letting them serve in an acting capacity meant they could lose the job if they upset the governor. The attorney general’s office represents the state in major legal issues, such as challenges to Christie’s 2011 public-employee benefits reform law that have gone before the state Supreme Court. The agency also includes the state police, and several other important divisions, including the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control and Division of Consumer Affairs.
Sweeney, the Senate president, said he had “a great working relationship” with Porrino when he was chief counsel. “I worked with him a great deal. In my experience he was always trustworthy,” Sweeney said. But he also said the Senate needs to do its due diligence on the nomination. “We’ve wanted (the governor) to nominate an attorney general so we could give him a hearing.” He said, “I would hope that in July that (Porrino) will have a hearing.”
Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) attended the announcement yesterday and afterward called Porrino “an incredible nominee.”
“He’s always shown wonderful dedication to the interests and the needs of the people of New Jersey,” Kean Jr. said. “I think it’s a really good nomination on behalf of the people of New Jersey.”