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.
Port Board To Distance Itself from Christie Ally
Tuesday, February 04, 2014
New details are emerging on efforts by the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey to reform its internal ethics. It's the first move by the bi-state agency to grapple with recent reports that show an intermingling of public and private business by the Port Authority Chairman closely linked to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
As WNYC reported last week, the Authority's Board of Commissioners will be examining "all the facts and circumstances" surrounding the burgeoning Bridgegate scandal, including whether the Board's Chair, David Samson, had conflicts of interest when he voted to approve a new PATH station near Harrison.
The mechanism to do so will be a new five-member committee empaneled to take on what board Vice Chair Scott Rechler is calling the "political bureaucracy." It will be formed later this month.
The move marks one of the first efforts by officials appointed by by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to reform practices and ethics at the Authority since the bridge scandal broke. Rechler is Cuomo's top appointee there.
Samson's ethics have been called into question several times — first when documents implicated him in the planning of the politically motivated traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge. Then, it was reported that Samson's private lobbying firm was pressuring the mayor of Hoboken to approve a development deal for his client, The Rockefeller Group, at the same time Hoboken received funds from the Authority to boost the project. WNYC and the Record also reported on Samson's vote to approve a $256 million upgrade to the Harrison PATH station at a time when he was representing two private clients who owned newly valuable land nearby.
Samson is both chair of the Authority, a multi-billion dollar transportation and real estate agency, and head of a mighty lobbying and law firm in New Jersey, whose fortunes have swelled under Chris Christie. He is also one of Christie's closest advisers and fundraisers.
Authority board members are governed by their applicable local ethics laws. The New Jersey law states: "No State officer or employee or special State officer or employee should act in his official capacity in any matter wherein he has a direct or indirect personal financial interest that might reasonably be expected to impair his objectivity or independence of judgment."
“The creation of the Special Oversight Committee will provide a rigorous assessment of many of the unique operational and governance issues at the Port Authority and will explore areas of reform within the organization," the agency's spokesman, Christopher Valens, said in a written statement.
The Authority ethics code also directs commissioners to post annual disclosures of possible conflicts on their website, though no such disclosures could be located for any board member.
Samson has hired a crisis management public relations firm. His spokeswoman, Karen Kessler, said in a 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."