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Port Chief May be in More Ethical Hot Water

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

WNYC
Port Authority Chairman David Samson at Newark International Airport announcing United Airlines adding routes in and out of Atlantic City Airport on Nov. 14, 2013 (Tim Larsen / Office of Governor Chris Christie)

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.

 

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Comments [6]

Rr from NYC

Eric F is aerfect example of how this stuff is allowed to thrive. No one is advocating that project are stopped and I doubt you could get an argument about Christies' ability to push things through and get some things moving. The question is how.

Surely you're not suggesting that reporters and news outlets not report or following connections where they lead?

Report the facts and let the voters decide. Facts, light, transparency.

And who knows, perhaps the Port Authority might even get a cleaning.

Jan. 30 2014 01:16 PM
Melissa from Hoboken

Keep up the great work, Andrea. So proud that WNYC has such old-school reporters who remember how to do investigative journalism. My sustaining membership is one of my favorite investments.

Jan. 29 2014 11:32 AM

And more on Harrison's suddenly famous PATH station in today's Bergen record:
http://www.northjersey.com/news/Governors_brother_invested_in_houses_near_new_PATH_station_in_Harrison.html

Jan. 29 2014 10:52 AM
CMHNY from Manhattan

The NYTimes had an article about a month ago about the NJ Pine Barrens. The article was about the pressure from Christie's staff to force a member of the commission to recuse himself from participating in the decision on whether to allow an oil pipeline to be put through the environmentally protected land. The lawyer for the oil company is David Samson. Luckily the commission voted against allowing the pipeline to go through the Pine Barrens. This appears to be another instance of a conflict of interest by Samson.

Jan. 29 2014 09:48 AM
Eric F

Seriously? This is just about pure nonsense. This site is actually advocating for not transforming the Harrison PATH station? That must be the first mass transit project in history that this site is against. Christie needs to propose a tax increase so I can see NPR go against that as well.

Harrison HAS a PATH station. The project does not add train access to Harrison, it simply dramatically improves the utility of the station. Harrison has seen massive development without the transformed station. That said, go to Harrison some time! The station is utterly decrepit and needs to be replaced. It does not so much need to be replaced to "spur" development as it does to accommodate development that has happened and is happening. The "cornerstone" of Harrison development is Red Bull Arena, which was an initiative of the team, Red Bull and prior local and NJ administrations. The arena put Harrison on the map and goes much of the way to creating the need for better transit and highway access (the NJDOT has a long-standing plan to realign I-280 in Harrison as well, dating back a decade or more). Harrison has has long-standing initiatives to reclaim fallow ex-industrial areas for new development. See, e.g., new Panasonic research center that opened last year.

The Harrison PATH station rebuild has been on the PA radar and Harrison's for at least ten years. It is necessary for several reasons. The current station is not ADA compliant and can handle only small crowds. The PA has a long-term and much delayed plan to extend PATH platforms to accommodate 10 car trains. PATH now uses 8 car trains, so this would be a 25% bump in capacity. Harrison's platforms must be lengthened as a prerequisite of of that project. I believe the rebuild also accommodates future widening of the Northeast Corridor tracks through Harrison, to allow a new track between Secaucus and Newark though I'm not sure if the station project has a realignment feature.

One thing Christie has been very good at is taking projects like this -- that have been on the PA/DoT drawing board for years, WAY PRIOR to his administration and actually get them done. This is a needed project and it's a shame that you are trying to scuttle it because the guy has an "R" next to his name. If you kill this thing it's not Christie who gets hurt, it's the thousands of people trudging through Harrison every day.

Jan. 29 2014 09:42 AM
David from New Jersey

Clearly a shameful conflict of interest by Mr Samson and the Governor.

Jan. 29 2014 08:24 AM

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