The Power Broker: How Christie's Port Point Man Plays All Sides of Transit Deals

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

David Samson announcing the Atlantic City airport Deal with Governor Christie. (NJ Governor's Office/Tim Larson)

About a year ago, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey voted to take over the airport in Atlantic City, far outside the Port’s normal scope of operations, defined by a 25-mile radius from the Statue of Liberty.

"There are great opportunities here on a going forward basis,” the Port Authority board’s chairman, David Samson, said just after the vote. But the arrangement puzzled aviation experts; at the time of the deal, the money-losing airport had just 29 flights a day. 

"I was surprised that the Port Authority would invest in an airport when the region’s airports that it currently has jurisdiction over are so in need of investment," said Mitchell Moss, director of New York University's Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management. "It seemed like a major diversion of investment resources to a peripheral location.”

For Samson, though, the deal was more than a big win for the political and economic development agenda of Governor Chris Christie, who appointed him to the Port Authority board and who has made the revival of Atlantic City a prime goal of his administration.

Rather, it was an opportunity — one of many, WNYC has learned — for Samson to advance his own business interests while doing the public’s business at the Port. As chair of the Port Authority, head of a successful law firm, and — above all — as a confidante of Christie's, Samson has been able to maximize his connections, which spin out across the region's transportation network.

Records show that Samson’s law firm, West Orange, NJ-based Wolff & Samson, had been hired as bond counsel by the government agency that had been anemically running the Atlantic City airport, the South Jersey Transportation Authority. That agency, chaired by Christie appointee James Simpson, the state transportation commissioner, approved a contract hiring Wolff & Samson just weeks before Christie nominated Samson to be Port Authority chairman.

The records, on file with New Jersey's Election Law Enforcement Commission, show Wolff & Samson earned $113,701.32 over the next two years. A spokesman for the transportation authority, Kevin Rehmann, says Wolff & Samson continues to work for the agency to this day.

Samson recused himself from the vote by the 12-member Port Authority board to take over the airport’s operations, thus abiding by the letter of the Port’s ethics code, which forbids votes in which commissioners have an interest. And to be sure, many of the deals in which Samson has had a hand could have transportation and economic development benefits. After the vote to takeover the Atlantic City airport, Samson told reporters that Port Authority consultants believed the Port's muscle could increase flights in and out of Atlantic City to several hundred a day. 

Neither Samson, his law firm, nor a public relations firm hired to represent the 74-year-old attorney as scandals broke across the Christie Administration would answer questions about Samson's dealings. Earlier, Karen Kessler, his spokeswoman, issued this statement: "Throughout his decades of public service, and now as Chairman of the PANYNJ, David Samson has always held himself to the highest personal and professional standards, including consistently complying with applicable rules adopted by Port Authority."

Samson has long been a fixture in New Jersey politics. Named by a Democratic Governor, Jim McGreevey, as state attorney general, Samson grew close to Christie, then the state's United States Attorney, when the two men were threatened by the Latin Kings gang. “We enjoyed a death threat together. That brings you together,” Christie later joked. Samson is one of the handful of allies who accompany Christie on trips related to his national political ambitions. More than one source close to both men has described Samson as a “father figure” to Christie.

More Transportation Connections

The South Jersey Transportation Authority is not the only transportation agency that Samson has worked for while chairing the Port Authority. In July 2010, records show, Wolff & Samson went to work for NJ Transit for a sum of $1.5 million in connection with an unspecified "public-private partnership." NJ Transit has its own financial ties to the Port Authority: its midtown Manhattan bus terminal is subsidized by the Port Authority through cheap rents, and the Port Authority has sent NJ Transit an occasional infusion of funds for the acquisition of rail cars.

In addition, Wolff & Samson was named general counsel of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority in 2011. Over the next two years, the firm earned $2.67 million in fees from the agency, which operates the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway.

Samson’s business interests in the transportation world have thrust him into the middle of the scandals engulfing Christie.

The New York Times reported last month that Wolff & Samson was privately lobbying NJ Transit on behalf of the Rockefeller Group in connection with a Hoboken redevelopment project. The city's mayor, Dawn Zimmer, contends that the Christie Administration threatened to withhold Sandy aid to Hoboken unless the Rockefeller project went forward. The Port Authority granted $75,000 for a study of the area that ended up favoring Samson’s client. The Times also reported that NJ Transit signed a memorandum of understanding last June with the Rockefeller Group, without Zimmer's knowledge.

WNYC has also previously reported that Samson voted at the Port Authority for a $256 million upgrade of the Harrison PATH station, at the same time he was representing landowners nearby who stood to benefit from the station’s redevelopment.

Bill Wolfe, the head of NJ-PEER, an environmental group that has monitored NJ Transit, is critical of the deals for lacking “competitive bidding, transparency, and robust ethical restrictions, which are particularly important given the many real estate and development interests among Wolff & Samson clients."

Lawmakers investigating the Hoboken affair and the Bridgegate scandal involving lane closures at the George Washington Bridge last September also say that Samson’s dealings present at least the suggestion of conflicts of interest.

“It certainly raises the appearance there's something not correct," said Assemblyman John Wisniewski, the Sayreville Democrat who chairs the  Assembly Transportation Committee and is leading the investigation into the scandals. “Having high-level appointees essentially help themselves to opportunities that aren’t available to other people can lead to a suspicion that things are not being done for the right reasons.”

Like Samson, the Port Authority is not commenting on specific allegations of misconduct, but it has set up a special committee to investigate the bridge scandal and charges of conflicts of interest.

Gambling, Airports, and Politics

A close look at the Atlantic City airport deal shows the fraught relationship between Samson’s private business dealings and his duties as a public official.

The airport deal pre-dates Christie, going back to the administration of Democrat Jon Corzine, in 2007. At the time, the Port Authority had voted to take over the Stewart Airport, near Newburgh, NY, 70 miles up the Hudson River from New York City. Records and interviews show that Corzine insisted that the Port Authority agree to take over a New Jersey airport, in exchange for his assent on the Stewart proposal.  

But the promise didn’t die with Corzine’s defeat at Christie's hands. In his 2009 campaign, Christie also had promised to revitalize the economy of Atlantic City and of South Jersey. Taking over the Atlantic City airport was part of the promise — and the deal had its partisans, especially among South Jersey Democrats. The powerful State Senate Democratic leader, Steve Sweeney, had spoken out a number of times in its favor. Shortly after Christie was elected, in late November 2010, Sweeney introduced legislation to promote Atlantic City’s economy. Central to that legislation was a revitalized airport.

Samson, named Port Authority chairman a few months later, was quick to tout the benefits of a Port takeover of the airport's operations. “I think the benefits would be obvious,” he told the Newark Star-Ledger in March 2011. “It is something that will obviously continue to be looked at by the Port Authority staff."

Sources familiar with the agency who did not want to speak for attribution because of a fear of retribution say it was Christie’s two top aides on the staff, Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, who in the summer of 2012 brought a proposal to the Port Authority board for a $3 million study of the possibility of taking over the airport. Samson was present at the vote, but recused himself. It passed with no dissent.

By March of 2013, the Port staff formally proposed a 15-year takeover of the Atlantic City airport. It passed unanimously, with Samson again recusing himself, and the agency — which also operates JFK, LaGuardia and Newark-Liberty airports — began running the Atlantic City facility in July.

But would the promise of reinvigoration be fulfilled? 

Christie very much wanted a major airline to agree to fly to Atlantic City. His administration approached United Airlines, sources familiar with the negotiations say. And there's confirmation in the Bridgegate documents themselves.

In hearings last month, Assemblyman Wisniewski questioned Wildstein about a document he submitted to the Legislature under subpoena, containing a series of messages attempting to set up a meeting between Christie and Samson. It’s still a mystery why Wildstein included that document; Wisniewski says it is a signal it is somehow involved the lane closures in Fort Lee.

“That document refers to a meeting with Port Authority chairman David Samson, does it not?” Wisniewski asked Wildstein. 

“On advice of counsel, I assert my right to remain silent,” Wildstein responded. 

“And that also refers to a meeting with the Governor on the same date?” Wisniewski said.

Wildstein again asserted his right to remain silent.

As it turns out, Christie and Samson did meet on August 23 — with Jeff Smisek, the CEO of United Airlines, the Record newspaper reported. Though it’s unknown whether the bridge closures were discussed that day, one agenda item is known: United flights to Atlantic City.

Sources familiar with those discussions who didn’t want their names used because they aren’t authorized to speak publicly say the discussions stalled. In exchange for serving Atlantic City, they said, United wanted a PATH train line connecting lower Manhattan with its hub at Newark Liberty airport. United did not return requests for comment.

During the second week of September, coincidentally the same week as the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge, word leaked out that Christie would be making an announcement at Newark airport. But the deal wasn’t ripe — not until November. On November 14, Christie, Samson, Sweeney and Smisek joined in a joyful press conference at the airport to announce that United would be starting flights to Atlantic City.

On February 4, the Port Authority made another splashy announcement: it would fund a $1.5 billion extension of PATH service from the World Trade Center to Newark airport.

(With reporting by Joseph Capriglione.)


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Comments [22]

Jeff from southern NJ, a few miles from a.c. airport!

I don't want anymore 'expansion' of this infernal a.c. airport... It already sounds like it's got more than 100 flights right now in February of 2015! Over the last year Galloway, NJ (and other towns in the flight path) has been ruined because of all this heinous airplane noise and pollution! They are breaking the law, flying day and night, exceeding 65 db noise regularly with their low flying planes I see hovering constantly over my house/vicinity. I lived in Galloway 9 years, no problems. This has ruined my life. It started this past year and has worsened! I am chronically ill(multiple disabilities), and have the poorest quality of life imaginable now! I am being constantly traumatized and tormented everyday with those horrible planes! It's the planes and the military, but it's all coming from this f*cking airport. They don't respect or care about human beings. They are violating our human rights and debilitating my health and life every f*cking day! I want this airport to get blown up. Now! I urge all terrorists to target the a.c. airport! Get rid of it now! That is what we need. We are too poor/sick to move or to soundproof and I am walking around paralyzed everyday unable to do anything because of this noise. They disturb my sleep, bowel movements, thinking, walking, every part of my existence! I have missed numerous therapy, doctor's appointments, surgeries, etc. The people running this airport and all the elected officials and people in power who refuse to help us and do something about this problem! They are all heartless lowlifes and karma is going to come back tenfold on all of them. They should all be calling the airport, flooding them with calls! As well as congressman LoBiondo's office, and anyone else who has the power to make a change here! They should all be complaining daily about this noise, but they don't. I am special needs and I am being abused, violated, and debilitated everyday from these planes/military jets! They fly low and they are sooo f*cking no good that they can't even fly a plane higher up to control the noise and give innocent people peace and quiet in their own homes! No that would be too simple and caring of others. They don't care about anything but flying those stupid goddamn planes back and forth! They make me wish I was dead everyday... My ears and head are killing me everyday because of this! And I'm being forced to walk around my house with earplugs in for almost 20 hours straight sabotaging my ability to have conversations with my family or watch any tv, listen to any music, or have any connection with the outside world! Don't you dare judge me for my extreme comments! Until you have to live this unbearable existence of having your life ruined and turned every which way but up from all this noise... I can assure you that karma is going to pay all these heinous military/government beaurocratic a*sholes back for their selfish heartless delusional pathetic abusive obsessive airplane excursions...

Feb. 08 2015 04:15 PM

I recalled years ago, I took Amtrak to AC -- we did passed AC Airport. From what Michael from Camden NJ mentioned above -- there's no NJTransit stop at the airport?

Having connection with NJTransit would make AC Airport grow -- if not, there is no way AC Airport will grow to at least 100 flights a day per Gov. Christie plan.

Feb. 14 2014 10:48 AM
Peter from NY NY

My question is: where was Governor Cuomo? Who is looking out for New York's interests? An airport in Atlantic City does NOTHING for NY State or the City! Is there some kind of backroom deal we don't know about? Please investigate-Thanks!
Peter from downtown Manhattan

Feb. 13 2014 11:01 AM
Cathy from Hoboken, NJ

Please take a look at the condition of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. The Port Authority should be spending money upgrading this facility. NJ Transit Bus claims that it was built to handle less than 30% of the capacity it now does. ANd it's in disgraceful condition! Talk about calling La Guardia looking like it's in a 3rd world country! The ceiling on the 2nd floor South Wing, one of the busiest parts is literally falling in. On a rainy or snowy day the place is littered with buckets and trash and even hoses connected from the ceiling to the trash cans to catch the many, many leaks. It's crazy! NOt to mention, the incredible overcrowding and lines for buses.

Feb. 13 2014 10:12 AM
Gene from New Jersey

One of the first things Governor Christie did on talking office was to disband NJN Radio and Television and dividy up the remains between New York and Philly. At the time I thought there goes any chance of getting the real story on what going to happen next in Trenton. Good thing Governor Christie didn't know about Andrea Bernstein or we may have lost her. Thanks Andrea for your incredible reporting!

Feb. 12 2014 10:31 PM
michael from Camden NJ

I like the AC airport as a sane alternative to PHL. It is however a long way from Atlantic City and again it is not on the NJ transit line. Its just way out in the middle of nowhere.

Feb. 12 2014 07:43 PM

"Lawmakers investigating the Hoboken affair and the Bridgegate scandal involving lane closures at the George Washington Bridge last September also say that Samson’s dealings present at least the suggestion of conflicts of interest." Are you kidding me? I am a physician and cannot accept a ballpoint pen from drug companies--rightly so given the perception of undue influence, unethical behavior, and the creation of doubt regarding my objectivity and obligations. How much evidence do we need that without question the most corrosive and damaging issue in modern politics is the inability to separate money and influence from decision making. Does anyone truly doubt that our government is so ineffectual and hypocrisy ridden as a result of money ? Is there any doubt that our complete inability to face monumental issues such as climate change, health care, tax policy, corporate crime, foreign policy are the absolute result of quid pro quo "contibutions" (ie bribery) and profound corporate driven lobbyist influences. While there can be no doubt that these issues permeate both parties, Christie is a particularly egeregious example of what happens when power seeking, unqualified, deal making, thoroughly unethical and dishonest people are given power. As we watch our society will collapse under the weight of graft and corruption by leaders only focussed on their potential gains while actual problems go ignored, essentially forgiven by a duped, lazy, and frightened population unwilling to demand vision, honesty, courage, and competence from its leaders.

Feb. 12 2014 12:19 PM
AlisonShusterShea from In the Non-Contiguous Section of South Hackensack, NJ

The bigger issue is the numerous conflicts with Wolff Samson at the nations largest municipal bond junk transaction. Samson's firm has conflicts with the County of Bergen government, the NJ CDA, the Bergen County Improvement Authority and as the law firm for the developer of American Dream Mall/urban water park/Kosher food court which is Canadian company Triple Five.
Also Chrisite's control over the NJSEA as well as the bizarre union endorsements of Port Authority Commissioner Ray Pacino for Bergen County Executive even before there is an announced candidate. Combine this with now plans to build a casino.

Feb. 11 2014 09:52 PM
World War II Veteran from Bergen County

It saddens me, knowing that so many thousands rom my era sacrificed their lives for such a greedy and thoughtless generation. I'm certain that money is the root al all evil. God will punish them.

Feb. 11 2014 08:54 PM
suzinne from Bronx

Christie actually thought people would board a PLANE to go to Atlantic City? Listen, I loved going to the Jersey Shore a couple of summers (way back OK), but the beauty of the destination is that it's local! People who don't have a lot of money to spill, get in their car and drive to to JOISEY. If "yah got some bucks," you go to Florida, PR or Cancun.

Feb. 11 2014 08:22 PM
Phyllis Wrynn from Park Slope

What is so infuriating is how much the tolls of ordinary citizens were raised to fill the coffers of the Port Authority...which appears to actually be a CRIMINAL organization masquerading as a dual state agency.

I think the tolls should be rolled back and that the entire agency be taken away from the power of two governors...which renders it basically a political organization for whoever win an election. That is extremely dangerous as a way of running such a large agency whose policies affect millions of people on a daily basis.

It is very much like the Transit Authority raising the tolls so high for millions of us, yet giving Ratner a sweetheart deal in which he made billions at Atlantic Yards. There was an alternative plan which would not have demapped historic streets, would not have walled precious brownstone neighborhoods off from one another....and would not have resorted to eminent domain (used for private profit in this case...not public good...) to displace so many residents of Prospect Heights.

There was a better offer for the rights to develop and a much more humane and human-scale plan, but Ratner kept giving money to politicians...and his lower bid was accepted. Now, he's selling everything to agents of foreign governments.

So much for his commitment to Brooklyn...and affordable housing...not a square inch of which has been built in all these years.

And, the transit fares skyrocketed whereas the other offer would not have caused that to happen.

When are we going to learn? There must be transparency...the money MUST be taken out of politics. It should be a mantra for anyone who cares about their village, town, city...

This NJ story, thanks to phenomenal reporting all around, has shown what degradation of social fabric is behind the curtain.

Now, there should be a citizen's movement to reject the higher tolls and fares ...both of which affect disproportionately those least able to afford the astronomical increases.

And, we must continue to support the journalists who have bravely investigated these stories, even when intimidated and bullied.

Feb. 11 2014 05:29 PM

Keep up this good and detailed reporting. It was way down on the website - and perhaps it should not be since it involves at least 2/3 of your coverage region. I only looked for it because I heard half before walking out the door.

Feb. 11 2014 05:29 PM
Eric F

Does the PA operate an airport in NY State that is outside of its usual territorial jurisdiction? Maybe you can investigate that. Try Googling "Stewart Airport". See what you can dig up.

Feb. 11 2014 11:23 AM
Donald Diamond

Your reporting establishes that “truth is stranger than fiction” has substance. No one would read a novel or attend a movie with a plot that renders persons unable to get help from police, firefighters and emergency health providers by inconveniencing the public trying to get to work as a political vendetta. There is no person with the skill to make such fiction believable to a degree that one would finish the book or not walk out on the film. Your excellent reporting now includes the stars of such a story making money on the side and a secondary plot involving aviation. I am glad that you are gainfully employed as reporters. You would starve as fiction writers.

Feb. 11 2014 11:09 AM
Peter Tassone from Putnam County, NY

Could it be, that Governor Christie's decision to pull all money out of the planned rail tunnel into Manhattan a couple of years ago, have any relevance to this discussion?

Feb. 11 2014 10:56 AM
Leslie from New York City

Sounds like a better movie than American Hustle. On the other hand, it might need to be a mini-series. Excellent reporting!

Feb. 11 2014 10:50 AM
Jenna from UES

Why should any newspaper "endorse" anyone? This paper had it wrong, should we unendorse them for this mistake?

Feb. 11 2014 10:37 AM

No wonder Christie decided not to fire Samson -- it would have been too dangerous to have Samson out there, angry and talking.
A Christie issue that seems to have disappeared is the Federal Tort Claims lawsuit filed against him in 2009. (Maybe it was settled or dismissed?) You'd think either way the dismissal would have been covered, and settlement discussions would have been noted.
In a nice twist, it was covered in Wildstein's old blog, Politicker NJ

Feb. 11 2014 10:34 AM
Seth Grossman

Now that people have their eyes open, let's see what dirty deal was made to have the Port Authority take over the Atlantic City Airport, and let's undo that dirty deal. Liberty and Prosperity

Feb. 11 2014 10:21 AM
Sean from Brooklyn

Has anyone noticed the actual physical state of the George Washington Bridge lately? Not to mention that a minimum wage worker, if he or she were fortunate enough to own a car, would have to work between two and three hours to pay the toll.

Dissolve and disband the Port Authority. Break it up. For purposes of the public's interstate commerce and travel, create the following independent and individual agencies (the actual names are not important, these are descriptive, anyway):

The Lincoln & Holland Tunnel Authority
The George Washington Bridge Authority
The SI-NJ Bridge Authority
The NY-NJ Subway Authority

The rest -- the airports (including Atlantic City!), the World Trade Center, the actual ports of NY & NJ, etc. -- let those entities figure it out and pay for it with fees and taxes from airlines, shipping companies, Trade Center tenants, gamblers, et al.

Feb. 11 2014 10:20 AM
Bonnie Sachs

As a New Jersey WNYC addict I must thank you for your in depth reporting on the Christe scandals. Without journalism this country would be in an even sorrier state than it is already.

Feb. 11 2014 09:58 AM
Mike Froggatt from Brooklyn

I like a juicy corruption story as much as the next Democrat, but a direct PATH train from WTC to EWR sounds amazing.

Feb. 11 2014 09:45 AM

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