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.
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,, 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, whoat 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.