Award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is Senior Editor for Politics & Policy for WNYC News. She has previously served as Metro Editor, Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
The Power Broker: How Christie's Port Point Man Plays All Sides of Transit Deals
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
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.)