The following is Part I of a Christie Watch investigative report concerning the role of Chris Christie, the Wolff & Samson law firm, and several top Christie aides in the multibillion-dollar American Dream complex at the Meadowlands. Part II will be published tomorrow.
If you’ve crossed the George Washington Bridge, at least when the lanes are open, and headed south down the New Jersey Turnpike, you’ve passed by it. If you’ve gone to see the New York Giants play at MetLife Stadium, you can’t have missed it. And if you commute north on the Turnpike though the vast swamp and wetlands just outside New York City, you see it every day. We’re talking about the enormous, misshapen orange, red and blue monstrosity of an edifice that sits there, an empty shell, one that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie called the “ugliest damn building,” adding: “I can’t take it anymore.”
But the project, unused and decaying—originally dubbed Xanadu (as in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “stately pleasure-dome”) and now reborn as the American Dream mega-complex—could be the latest, and biggest, conflict-of-interest scandal in the tangle of scandals plaguing the New Jersey governor, according to an investigation by The Nation’s Christie Watch. Among those mixed up in the multibillion-dollar Meadowlands redevelopment project, besides Christie, are a colorful cast of characters. Leading the pack is David Samson, the founder of the über-powerful New Jersey law firm Wolff & Samson, Christie’s political mentor and disgraced former chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Two former assistant US attorneys, who worked with Christie during his tenure as US attorney for the District of New Jersey (2002–08) and then served in his administration, are enmeshed in it, including Michele Brown, who headed New Jersey’s Economic Development Authority; and Ralph Marra, currently the top lawyer for the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. There’s Lori Grifa, a Wolff & Samson attorney and Samson’s chief political enforcer, appointed by Christie to head New Jersey’s Department of Community Affairs (DCA) and the Meadowlands Commission. And there’s Jon Hanson, a wealthy developer with close ties to Christie.
First planned in the late 1990s as a gigantic, Mall of America–style complex with a mind-boggling array of attractions including skydiving facilities, an indoor ski slope, a movie complex and the largest Ferris wheel in the United States, under Christie it has expanded even further into a project incorporating an indoor water park, an amusement park, a giant ice rink, an aquarium, a performing arts center and a facility for bungee jumping.
Leave aside, for the moment, whether or not such a project is needed in the most densely populated, traffic-clogged state, filled already with countless malls. The project, precariously financed and putting New Jersey taxpayers at risk, involves a stunning web of conflict-of-interest arrangements, at the heart of which—and representing nearly every side—is David Samson, Wolff & Samson, and their clients. He and his firm have ties to both the state and local government agencies that will provide tax supported bond financing. He has represented as counsel and overseen massive contracts for the company that will pull together private funds for the project as well, and it is still another Wolff & Samson client, Triple Five, which is actually building the project. Grifa, the Wolff & Samson lawyer, first played a key role for the state of New Jersey in getting it off the ground and then brought Triple Five, the builder, as a client to Wolff & Samson, where she works alongside Jeffrey Chiesa, who served as attorney general and chief counsel under Governor Christie before going back to Wolff & Samson.