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.
Christie, who’s pushed hard to move American Dream forward, has strongly backed legislation that will allow the state to play an important behind-the-scenes financing role in it. His top political appointees have brought in new developers when others pulled out, and they have maneuvered to arrange state financing aid.
Particularly troubling is the likelihood that the complicated state and local bond-financing scheme they have developed will siphon off sorely needed tax revenues.
“The project crossed the line from a public policy point of view with the bonds,” said Dennis McNerney, a Democrat and the former county executive of Bergen County, where the project is located, in an interview with Christie Watch. “Democratic Governors McGreevey and Corzine had said there would be no public money involved with the Meadowlands mall, but Christie said, ‘You know what, it’s going to be public money.’” According to McNerney, the bonds have been approved both by Christie and by Kathleen Donovan, the Republican who is currently the county executive of Bergen County, though they haven’t yet been issued. “But the day they are there will be a loss of revenue for the taxpayers,” says McNerney.
At every step of the way Christie, his top aides, and Wolff & Samson were there to keep the ball rolling. Paul Ghermezian, a project executive for the company developing the site, gives Christie credit as prime mover. At an event in April, held with the governor to announce the revised plan for the Meadowlands complex, Ghermezian, looking over at Christie, said, “Governor, you were there, you sat in on the meetings, you pushed where you needed to push—you pushed us where you needed us to be pushed.”
When Chris Christie won the governorship in 2009, the long-stalled project—designed to be built on state-owned wetlands—was made a key focus of top officials in his administration, and Samson and his law firm took a major interest in getting it moving.
Samson and Christie have been close since the early 2000s. In 2002, the two men bonded when Christie was the US attorney and Samson was the state’s attorney general. In 2009, Samson served as counsel to Christie’s 2009 gubernatorial campaign, and later that year Samson ran Christie’s transition team, helping to select key appointees. Two longtime Samson associates and law firm members were given top roles in Christie’s administration, Grifa as head of DCA and the Meadowlands Commission, and Chiesa—who also served under Christie in the US attorney’s office—as Christie’s chief counsel and then attorney general.
Beginning in February (with “David Samson’s Tangled Web at the Port Authority”), Christie Watch has reported extensively on the Samson-Christie connection, even as Samson found himself caught up in Bridgegate and related scandals and was forced to resign as Port Authority chairman. Christie and Samson have a close, symbiotic relationship, and Wolff & Samson is inextricably tied to the Christie administration and its projects, vastly benefiting from lucrative contracts with the state, its bond sales, and as legal representative for numerous, multibillion-dollar projects tied to New Jersey and to the Port Authority.
Nothing illustrates that more profoundly than the maneuverings of both regarding the American Dream Meadowlands project.
Samson’s ties to the project go back to at least 2006, when Colony Capital took over financing responsibility for what was supposed to be a $2 billion project, which had been planned since the late 1990s as a destination mall complex. Construction started in 2002 when the real estate frenzy was in its prime and speculators bet that assets would continue rising in value regardless of problems with the project. But after sinking in hundreds of millions of dollars, the initial developer ran out of money. When Colony Capital stepped in, both Samson and Grifa were state lobbyists for the firm.
Colony Capital agreed to put together a $1 billion loan package, but when the financial crisis exploded in 2008 Colony’s gamble went bust, along with one of its prime investors: Lehman Brothers. Construction on the mall ceased in August 2009, but not before its looming hulk rose over commuters on the Turnpike. By then, it was the laughing stock of the region.
Enter Jon Hanson. Soon after his election in November 2009, Christie appointed Hanson, a wealthy real estate developer who led Christie’s political fundraising team and who was a member of the Samson-led transition team, to come up with a plan for the Meadowlands project which, by that time, had $2 billion sunk into it. Colony insisted that the project couldn’t go forward without state help in the form of tax-exempt bonds. Hanson was named by Christie to lead a commission on the future of the Meadowlands boondoggle, and in the Report of the Governor’s Advisory Commission On New Jersey Gaming, Sports and Entertainment, Hanson did indeed recommend that the project get state aid. Behind schedule and in need of at least $875 million, Christie got on board. “On Xanadu, you have essentially two choices you’re confronted with: Make it work, or tear it down.”
First, a developer willing to take it on needed to be found. Hanson and Grifa led the effort. Grifa, just appointed by Christie to DCA and to chair the Meadowlands Commission, had official responsibility for overseeing development in the area. Long associated with Samson, Grifa had started at Wolff & Samson in 1997, and in 2002 she served as Samson’s chief of staff when he was attorney general. In April 2011, Hanson and Grifa signed up a Canadian company, Triple Five, which had built the largest mall in the United States, Minnesota’s Mall of America, to revive the Xanadu fiasco. When the company proposed massively expanding the plan for the project, it received the blessing of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority’s general counsel, Ralph Marra. The NJSEA oversees the Meadowlands Sports Complex, where the American Dream project is, along with other sports and convention centers on state land. Like others in this saga, Marra had close ties to Christie. During the 2000s, Marra served as Christie’s top deputy in the US attorney’s office. In 2009, after Christie left the office to run for governor, Marra oversaw the massive Big Rig III investigation, timing its unfolding—which resulted in scores of arrests of leading Democratic local and state officials—to give Christie an election boost in his campaign against then-Governor Jon Corzine. Perhaps as a thank-you, Christie appointed Marra to the sports and exposition post. To be continued.
Tomorrow: How Christie and his cronies got the project funded—with the public’s money.