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.
Exclusive: Logs Show Dozens of Calls Between Former Port Chief & Top Christie Aides
Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Gov. Christie’s former top man at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, David Samson, was in frequent contact with top aides at the statehouse during the week lanes were shut down at the George Washington Bridge, newly released documents show. Samson, the subject of multiple probes, resigned in March.
The former chairman of the Port Authority also had phone contact that week with Port Authority officials David Wildstein and Bill Baroni, who both resigned in the aftermath of the Bridgegate scandal. Later, as outcry over the lane closures grew in the following months, Samson spoke to top Christie aides several times a week, including Christie's chief of staff, Kevin O'Dowd.
These phone calls are an intriguing missing piece of the Bridgegate investigation because Samson, who has been described as a father figure and esteemed member of Christie's inner circle, has refused to talk about what he may have known before and after the lanes were closed in September. Investigators from the Legislature and U.S. Attorney's Office have sought to connect Christie to the Port Authority's lane closures.
The phone records were subpoenaed and released by the Legislature's investigative committee.
The records don’t prove that Samson knew about the lane closures, nor do they prove that he discussed the lane closures with Christie staffers. There are a myriad of reasons why the chair of the Port Authority would have been speaking with its top staffers that week — including an event to commemorate the Sept. 11 attacks at the World Trade Center and the Port Authority takeover of the Atlantic City Airport. The phone logs also don’t prove Samson was involved in crafting false testimony to the Legislature.
But the records show a previously unknown frequency of communication between the governor’s office and the Port Authority during a time period that has come under scrutiny from federal prosecutors and Democrats. Specifically:
- On Nov. 25, the day that Baroni gave what is now considered bogus testimony before legislators, Samson spoke at length with top Christie aide Regina Egea, who was slated to become Christie's chief of staff. Samson also reached out to the current chief of staff, Kevin O'Dowd. And he had contact with Baroni before, during and after his testimony.
- During the week of Sept. 9, when the lanes were closed, there were a dozen calls between Samson and Baroni. Even though Samson rarely spoke to Wildstein, 18 months of phone logs show their communication spiked between June and September. In addition, the logs show a half-dozen calls between Samson and O’Dowd or Egea. O’Dowd was the direct supervisor of Bridget Ann Kelly, author of the now infamous "time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email.
- On Sept. 13, the day Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye sent an email blowing the whistle on the closures, Samson and Baroni spoke three times for a total of 21 minutes. That’s the day Baroni ordered “no public discourse” on the lane closures.
- Five minutes after Baroni was forwarded an email on Sept. 16 showing The Wall Street Journal was inquiring about the lane closures, the logs show Baroni and Samson spoke.
Samson, Baroni and Wildstein have all declined to testify to the Legislature or speak with Christie’s legal team, led by Randy Mastro, citing their Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves.
O’Dowd told Mastro’s team he spoke to Samson "when he had to address Port Authority-related issues," according to notes released by Christie's legal team. At legislative testimony on June 9, O'Dowd wasn't asked about the early September calls with Samson, but he said his Dec. 12 phone call with Samson was about the forced resignation of Baroni, which happened the following day.
Baroni’s lawyer and Samson's spokewoman didn't comment, and neither Wildstein’s attorney nor Mastro responded to emailed queries.
Interestingly, there are no records of any calls on any of Samson’s lines between Christie and Samson for all of 2012 and 2013, despite several proclamations during this period by the governor that he "spoke to the general." Christie and Samson spent time together in November 2013 in Arizona for a meeting of the Republican Governors Association.
Democratic Assemblyman Jon Wisniewski, co-chair of the Legislature's investigative committee, said he could think of no legal reason why Samson wouldn’t turn over records of calls to the governor. But, he added: "I find it difficult to accept that the chair of the Port Authority did not communicate with the governor" during this period.