Here’s an ironic example, uncovered by Christie Watch, of how tangled is the web involving Chris Christie, the Port Authority, its chairman David Samson, and Wolff & Samson: A key former member of Governor Chris Christie’s cabinet, who now works for the powerhouse and well-connected law firm Wolff & Samson, is overseeing a contract handed out to Wolff & Samson in August 2013 to audit the distribution of Sandy aid. Lori Grifa, who once headed Christie’s Department of Community Affairs, is the Wolff & Samson attorney in question, and it turns out that she also lobbied for the approval of the $1 billion development project in Hoboken that is at the center of charges that the administration threatened to withhold Sandy aid to Hoboken unless Mayor Dawn Zimmer approved the project.
The Bridgegate scandal that has plagued Chris Christie has already cost the New Jersey governor several key aides, including Bridget Anne Kelly, his deputy chief of staff, and Bill Stepien, the man who orchestrated Christie’s 2013 reelection and who was supposed to have been his inside man at the Republican Governors Association (RGA). Now, there’s a distinct possibility that he’ll lost another key ally: Grifa’s boss, David Samson, the chairman of the New York and New Jersey Port Authority, who’s been the governor’s political mentor and who ran his transition team when he was first elected governor in 2009.
As we shall see, Samson is beset by a growing wave of conflict-of-interest scandals involving Christie, the Port Authority and Samson’s law firm. For a while now there’ve been rumors that Samson might be on the way out, and last week the Newark Star-Ledger called on Samson to quit.
The case against Samson is substantial. First, Samson has been a key focus of the legislative committee investigating Bridgegate, which has subpoenaed him after e-mails released in mid-January revealed he knew about the traffic tie-up and was “helping us retaliate,” according to an email by David Wildstein, who orchestrated the lane closures. In another released e-mail Samson accused the PA’s executive director Patrick Foye of “stirring up trouble” by talking about the lane closures.
Second, his law firm, Wolff & Samson, which he co-founded, is entangled in vast array of conflicts of interest, some of which have been uncovered since Bridgegate. His firm is a player in the Hoboken story, now being investigated by the US attorney in New Jersey, where the mayor says that the Christie administration threatened to withhold recovery aid to her city unless she went along with a $1 billion development project by the Rockefeller Group, which was then represented by Wolff & Samson. It appears, also, that Wolff & Samson used its influence, perhaps improperly, to win approval for a Port Authority-funded PATH train station renovation that sits cheek-by-jowl with another Wolff & Samson-connected real estate development project. There are other conflicts, too numerous to mention in detail, including one recently that just broke over the weekend: An article in the Star-Ledger revealed how Railroad Construction Company, whose owner is represented by Wolff & Samson, received close to $16 million in PA contracts.
And third, his firm has benefited enormously from Samson’s connections to the Christie administration and, as detailed below, its earnings from lobbying, from representing companies with business before the administration, and its work as bond counsel for various towns and entities have skyrocketed since Governor Christie took office in 2010.
The notion that Samson might be the next to fall can only make the news worse for Christie, who’s already had a bad last few days. In Washington for the winter meeting of the National Governor’s Conference, where he earlier he might have hoped that the national media attention he would get as the head of the Republican Governors Association would boost his presidential prospects, Christie ended up dodging reporters and shying away from the public spotlight. As head of the RGA, which he took over in November, Christie would have relished the chance to confront Democratic Governor Martin O’Malley who heads the Democratic Governors Association on Face the Nation on Sunday. Instead, the privilege went to Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, whom Christie had outmaneuvered last year to take over the RGA helm. Jindal will handle Monday’s press conference as well.
Perhaps Samson thinks that a half-hearted apology is enough to save him. At a February 19 meeting of the PA’s Board of Commissioners, which was the first since the scandal erupted, Samson announced that the board was “deeply sorry” for the inconvenience the lane closures caused travellers. But he offered no excuse for the way his high-powered law firm has used Port Authority projects and its close ties to the Christie Administration to line its pockets and those of its real estate, energy, construction and other corporate clients.
The next day the Star-Ledger wrote a blistering editorial calling for Samson’s resignation:
Worse still, Samson’s half-hearted attempt at remorse ignored his own failures as head of this hopelessly broken agency—a list of ethical lapses, broken promises and business-as-usual, with new examples breaking by the day. …
Samson needs to go. Certainly, he’s not the source of all that ails the Port Authority, but he is the guy in charge. Beyond Bridgegate, his tenure as the Port Authority’s chair has been a failure. Despite promises of transparency and reform, the agency remains a dysfunctional patronage pit. Samson’s conflicts of interest are well-documented, and his resignation would be a fitting first step toward fixing a troubled agency.
Of course, David Samson is not just another lawyer who has profited from knowing Chris Christie. Last November, when Christie traveled with an entourage that included Stepien to Arizona for the meeting of the RGA at which Christie took over the organization’s leadership, Samson came along for the ride, spending days meeting with billionaire party contributors behind closed doors.
Samson’s association with Christie goes back at least to 2002, when Christie was the US attorney for the District of New Jersey and Samson was the state’s attorney general. The two men bonded, often meeting over meals, both when Samson was attorney general and later, when Samson was back in private practice. And, it appears that Christie may have done one big favor for Samson during those years. In 2007, Christie handed out several lucrative monitoring contracts for deferred prosecution agreements over cases involving medical device companies that Christie prosecuted—including one contract for former US Attorney General John Ashcroft, which led to a high-profile congressional hearing at which Christie had to testify. Less well known is that one of those contracts was given to Wolff & Samson.
In 2009 Samson helped get Christie into the governor’s mansion, serving as his campaign counsel. He then chaired Christie’s transition team, reviewing and vetting government appointments. Another top lawyer at Samson’s firm, Jeff Chiesa, was the executive director of the transition team, and took the slot as Christie’s chief counsel. (Chiesa, who later served as Christie’s attorney general, is now back at Wolff & Samson.)
The ties between the Christie administration, Wolff & Samson and the Port Authority have been enormously lucrative for the law firm. Detailed analysis of lobbying and other public records by Andrea Bernstein of WNYC and by the Star-Ledger shows just how profitable it has been. Reported the paper:
Samson became chairman of the Port Authority in early 2011. His firm made $8.4 million from its contract work with the state and authorities that year and in 2012, according to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission. Figures for 2013 are not yet available.
In the two-year period, the firm got lots of work from agencies controlled by Christie: the New Jersey Economic Development Authority ($1.15 million), NJ Transit ($1.4 million), the Turnpike Authority ($2.67 million) and the South Jersey Transportation Authority ($113,700). And Wolff & Samson got more than $1 million in work from the state attorney general and the state Treasury Department.
Another area where the law firm has prospered is in its lobbying work. In 2009 and 2010, the firm earned less than $400,000 from its lobbying efforts, according to ELEC records. But in 2011, the number shot up to $1.2 million, and in 2012, $1.1 million.
And WNYC reported:
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.
So far, the scandals involving Bridgegate and the questions about recovery aid from Superstorm Sandy after 2012 was distributed have been on separate tracks. What might bring them together is the notion that Wolff & Samson, already embroiled in Bridgegate, is also involved in state contracts to oversee Sandy aid in New Jersey. According to the New Jersey Office of the State Controller’s Sandy Transparency website, two law firms—Rothstein Kass and Wolff & Samson—jointly proposed in May 2013 to contract for “auditing and other related services in support of disaster recovery (Hurricane Sandy).” In their proposal to New Jersey, the two firms say that they will conduct a “well-planned and thorough evaluation of all programs and processes related to the distribution of disaster recovery funds/grants.” And, as might be expected for such a well-connected firm, Wolff & Samson and its partner were awarded a three-year contract.
Importantly, the Wolff & Samson attorney overseeing the firm’s Sandy aid auditing project is Lori Grifa. According to her Wolff & Samson official biography:
Lori Grifa rejoined Wolff & Samson as chair of the Regulatory Affairs Group after having served in Governor Chris Christie’s cabinet as the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs from 2010 to 2012.
It is, of course, the Department of Community Affairs that is now directly responsible for—you guessed it!—distributing a major part of Sandy aid.
Her official bio also helpfully tells us that “from 2002-2003, Lori served as chief of staff to New Jersey Attorney General David Samson.” And according to a New York Times article in January, it was none other than Lori Grifa who lobbied the city of Hoboken to get it to approve the Rockefeller Group’s billion-dollar project in the city. (The Rockefeller Group has since fired Wolff & Samson.)