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.
Under Christie, Business Booms for Port Authority's Chief
Thursday, January 23, 2014
The governorship of Chris Christie has been very good for David Samson, a close associate he installed as chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey - and who has emerged as a central figure in the scandals swirling around the New Jersey governor. Records show that his law firm's lobbying revenues have skyrocketed during Christie's tenure, and its business as a bond counsel has quadrupled.
Christie and Samson met when Christie was U.S. Attorney in Newark and Samson was New Jersey attorney general, appointed by Gov. Jim McGreevey, a Democrat. The two became close, frequently dining at Pals Cabin, a classic Jersey steakhouse in West Orange. Samson would become counsel to Christie's 2009 campaign, provide campaign offices, and become Christie's transition chair. Samson was so close to Christie that he was part of a small coterie that traveled with the Governor to the Republican Governors Association meeting in Arizona last November. And he was on the stage this week when Christie - who calls Samson "General" in recognition of his time as the state's top law enforcement officer - was sworn into a second term.
Long an influential attorney in the state, Samson during Christie's tenure has become the go-to man for people with business to do in New Jersey. His law firm, Wolff and Samson, saw an increase in its lobbying business from $40,000 before Christie was elected to over $1 million annually in the years after, according to state records.
Among its clients were GTECH, an online gambling and lottery operator; a firm whose effort to run a gas pipeline through the Pinelands recently was stymied, despite a push from the Christie Administration; the International-Matex Tank Terminal in Bayonne, a port facility; and a number of real estate developers, including the Rockefeller Group.
Federal prosecutors are investigating claims by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer that Christie's lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, threatened that the state would withhold Sandy aid for Hoboken unless she supported the Rockefeller Group project - a plan backed by a $75,000 Port Authority-funded study. Guadagno and other state officials have vigorously denied applying any such pressure. Zimmer has said that Lori Grifa, a Wolff & Samson attorney who previously served Christie as commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs, also pressed her to support the Rockefeller Group plan.
"It has the appearance of significant conflict of interest," said James Doig, a Dartmouth and Princeton professor who is the author of Empire On the Hudson, the definitive tome on the history of the Port Authority. Doig said it could be possible for Samson or Christie to present information showing the mixing of business and government work were proper. But, he added, "until I had information that seemed persuasive I would say it looks like a clear ethical violation."
Records also show that Wolff & Samson's municipal bond counsel business has quadrupled during Christie's tenure. During the previous administration of Gov. Jon Corzine, the firm handled $2.4 billion worth of bond sales. In Christie's first term, just concluded, that jumped to $10.1 billion, according to data provided to WNYC by Thomson Reuters, a media and information company that tracks the municipal bond market.
In addition to his firm's tie to the Hoboken imbroglio, emails disclosed in the legislative inquiry into the George Washington Bridge traffic snarl show that Samson was in communication with two men who Christie fired for their roles in orchestrating the traffic jam. Christie has stood by Samson, even though he ousted four other officials tied to the bridge traffic scandal.
Neither Samson, the Governor, or the Port Authority responded to requests for comment.
With reporting by Joseph Capriglione.