Peabody 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.
NJ Transit's Secret Deal With Christie's Favorite Firm
Wednesday, February 12, 2014 - 02:11 PM
The law firm run by Governor Christie's top man at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, David Samson, extracted a secret agreement from New Jersey Transit that it would build a transit station in a favorable location for Samson's client.
The deal is already under scrutiny from federal prosecutors because Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer has alleged that Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno threatened to withhold Sandy aid if Mayor Zimmer didn't greenlight the project.
Now, records show that NJ Transit, an agency under Christie control, agreed to foot much of the bill for the station on the Hudson Bergen light rail line. The non-binding agreement, released under New Jersey's Open Public Records Act, promises that NJ Transit will bear the cost of "construction and construction coordination of the new HBLR light rail station and associated on-site improvements."
Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer said in an interview that the secret payment arrangement caught her by surprise. To even get the memorandum of understanding, Zimmer's office had to file a records request. "What's surprising to me is that NJ Transit entered into this agreement with one property owner, one developer, without talking to the city at all, without talking to other property owners," Zimmer said.
Planners say the station, once built, stands to greatly increase the value of the land. "Generally, what New Jersey Transit will try to do is push the costs onto the developer," said Tom Wright, Executive Director of the Regional Plan Association, because developers can reap benefits from locations near transit stations. Wright added "there's no set formula for how these deals are constructed."
But Wright criticized the way in which the deal was struck, without any public input or even the knowledge of Mayor Zimmer. "You would always expect the mayor to be involved," Wright said.
The deal was negotiated by Lori Grifa, a Wolff & Samson Attorney who had just come off a stint as a high-level Christie appointee. Her efforts on behalf of the developer, The Rockefeller Group, were so assiduous that Hoboken's planning attorney, Joseph Maraziti, Jr., wrote to a Hoboken official that he was getting "the full court press on this. I have a voice mail from last night from Lori asking that I join a call this am with Lori and David Samson (Chair of PA.)" (The Record has some nice details on Grifa's lobbying of NJ Transit.)
The Port Authority had funded a $75,000 study of the project, which resulted in a favorable conclusion for Wolff & Samson's client.
NJ Transit would not comment, but said in a letter released with the document that "the possible need for a light rail station in Hoboken was first identified by professional planners over a decade ago."
Grifa and Samson did not respond to requests for comment. The Rockefeller group has since severed its relationship with Wolff & Samson, citing the controversy.