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 Chief May be in More Ethical Hot Water
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
David Samson, the Port Authority Chair and central figure in two scandals surrounding Governor Chris Christie, may be in more ethical hot water. Records show Samson voted to approve a $256 million PATH station renovation in Harrison, NJ that could end up benefitting two private clients. Other commissioners recused themselves from the vote but Samson did not, raising the specter of conflict of interest.
Harrison is a blue-collar town just across the Passaic River from Newark. Once known as the "beehive of industry," wide swaths of the post-industrial land are now empty. But a new PATH station is at the center of what Mayor Raymond McDonough -- a Democrat who endorsed Chris Christie for Governor -- has called the "cornerstone" of Harrison's redevelopment.
Records show at least two private clients own land near the PATH station -- land expected to grow in value as the redevelopment proceeds. One of those clients, BRG Harrison Lofts Urban Renewal LLC, hired Samson's firm just months before the Port Authority's vote to approve the station in March of 2012, the Record reported Tuesday.
Another, PSE&G, the electric company, maintains two plots of land, one which will become part of the new PATH station and one which the Harrison Waterfront Redevelopment Authority describes as "envisioned to consist of office towers." Officials say that site is still undergoing environmental remediation.
Town records show Wolff & Samson actively working on behalf of BRG, though plans have not been filed for the PSE&G site
BRG couldn't be reached, but principal Thomas Berkenkamp denied to the Record that he knew in advance of the Port Authority's impending approval, though it had been widely reported in the local press.
Kathleen Fitzgerald, a spokeswoman for PSE&G said the utility has owned the land for more than a century. She said PSE&G has not used Wolff & Samson for any land negotiations in Harrison. Records and news reports show that PSE&G had hired the firm for projects in other parts of the state, including the Susquehanna Roseland pipeline.
Fitzgerald added that the PSE&G has been discussing the sale of the land with the Town of Harrison and the Port Authority since the middle of the last decade and will sell the land for "fair market value minus the cost of remediating the property for environmental issues." The conversations became more serious, she said, in June of 2013.
Planners tend to like the kind of development that is going up in Harrison - dense, multifamily homes near transit, rather than suburban sprawl. But what's also clear is that the new PATH station greatly enhances the value of all the landowners property around the PATH station, including that of Samson's clients.
(The Record reported Wednesday that Chris Christie's brother, Todd Christie also began acquiring property near the new station his brother had championed, also shortly before the Port Authority vote. In a statement, Todd Christie's partners said they'd been buying and selling property in Harrison for years and that they'd asked Todd Christie to join them in 2011.)
There's precedent for recusing oneself from Port Authority votes -- indeed two commissioners, Jeffrey Moerdler and Anthony Sartor, recused themselves from the PATH vote, for unexplained reasons.
Paula Franzese, a Seton Hall Law Professor and co-author of New Jersey's ethics law, cautioned that not all the facts are in on Samson's ties. But, she said, "government service must not be for personal enrichment, it must be on behalf of the public, the citizenry."
Neither Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Gov. Chris Christie, or the Port Authority responded to questions about ethics governing Port Authority votes. Karen Kessler, Samson's newly hired crisis public relations manager, issued a statement attesting to the benefits of the project.
"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," Kessler said.
Kathleen Fitzgerald, the PS&E spokeswoman, rejected the idea that her company was swept up in an ethical breach by Samson. “It’s ludicrous to imply that we have taken any actions or sought to use any influence to take advantage of the redevelopment activities in Harrison. We were not seeking to sell land to make a profit. For close to a decade, we were cooperating with the efforts of a town and the Port Authority to upgrade an area to do the right thing for the community.”
This isn't the first deal that Samson has promoted in both official and private capacities. He's at the center of allegations by the Mayor of Hoboken, Dawn Zimmer, that New Jersey Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno threatened to hold up Sandy aid if Zimmer didn't approve a project by The Rockefeller Group, a Samson client. In that case, Lori Grifa -- a Wolff & Samson attorney who had previously served as Chris Christie's director of the Department of Community Affairs -- pressed hard for a meeting between Samson, the Rockefeller Group, and Hoboken town officials. "The full court press" was how Joseph J. Maraziti, the attorney for the Hoboken planning board, described it in an email to the Hoboken community development director.
Wolff & Samson is known for aggressively representing clients -- and for access to Chris Christie. Last week, WNYC reported on Samson's huge spike in business, both lobbying and legal, since Christie was elected and appointed Samson Chair of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.