Chris Christie walks with Port Authority chairman David Samson, Nov. 14, 2013. (AP/Mel Evans)

Christie refuses to dump corrupt crony: Why sketchy David Samson still has his job

Governor's top Port Authority appointee faces ethics complaint over deals that enriched his private practice


Josh Eidelson
March 4, 2014 6:30PM (UTC)

Top Christie ally and appointee David Samson -- already a key figure in the “Bridgegate” scandal that’s rocked the New Jersey governor’s administration – is now the target of a fresh ethics complaint alleging even more shenanigans at the Port Authority. That complaint, filed with the State Ethics Commission Monday by the New Jersey Working Families Alliance and first reported Sunday by MSNBC's Steve Kornacki (a Salon contributor), alleges that Samson has repeatedly lent his vote or his public support as Port Authority chairman to projects that stand to enrich the clients of his Wolff & Samson law firm.

Why does Samson still have his job in light of this allegation, and many links to the bridge debacle? “In Chris Christie’s New Jersey, there are different rules for inside players,” charged Analilia Mejia, who directs New Jersey Working Families Alliance, a progressive nonprofit with ties to the national Working Families Organization. (Spokespersons for the Port Authority and Gov. Christie did not respond to Monday inquiries.) Salon spoke with Mejia and a condensed version of our  interview follows.

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What did David Samson do wrong?

We contend that David Samson, on multiple instances, used his public post in a way that violated the public trust and benefited clients of his law firm, either through taking direct votes that we think are in violation of conflict of interest laws, or influencing votes by speaking in support or on behalf of the initiative [when] he understood he had to recuse himself …

David Samson takes a vote to approve a $256 million renovation project at the Harrison PATH station … at the same time that he represents PSE&G, a utility company, as well as a developer, both of which own land that was going to be impacted … The developer owned the plot of land that obviously would increase in value with this renovation, and he knew David Samson understood that they were going to redevelop it to build fancy high-rise … condos …

When you look at New Jersey conflict of interest laws, it is very clear … officials shouldn’t even engage in the appearance of impropriety …

Another key example to us is: David Samson … represents New Jersey Transit. They rent a parking lot for $900,000 a year. He votes to lower said rent to a dollar.

He was hired by New Jersey Transit to figure out a way to … maximize their bottom line … He takes this vote, saves them essentially almost a million dollars a year for 49 years -- and then he gets to collect his fee, right?

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David Samson understood that he should have recused himself. Because two years after the fact … when this is reported in the Bergen Record, he tries to retroactively … change the record to reflect that he quote-unquote attempted to, intended to recuse himself …

According to New Jersey conflict-of-interest laws, recusal must be absolute. That includes … not even being in the room when it’s being discussed … So if he really intended to recuse himself … Why did he not leave the room? Why did he cast the vote?

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… This is incredibly problematic, because at issue is the public trust … Decisions that impact public dollars: Are they being made because of private interests, or are they being made on behalf of the public good?

… He was making decisions that benefited his clients. And it benefits him … It means that his law firm is growing, that he’s seen as quote-unquote “effective.” So it impacts his bottom line as well.

These decisions – the $1 lease for New Jersey Transit [which the Port Authority will reportedly hold a new vote on], the Harrison Path Station reconstruction, the Port Authority takeover of the Atlantic City Airport [a takeover Samson recused himself from voting on, but was present for and had previously expressed support for] – are they defensible on the merits as public policy?

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We’re not questioning whether the initiatives were of value. We are questioning … whether or not he acted in a proper way. And as far as I’m concerned, David Samson, by taking that vote in Harrison, he taints the way the Harrison renovation is viewed more than anybody else.

Former Gov. Codey said that the appointment of Christie administration alum Susana Guerrero to direct the State Ethics Commission means “the process is now somewhat tainted, clearly.” Do you have confidence in the Ethics Commission to fairly assess this complaint?

The Ethics Commission was created with the intent to ensure the interests of regular New Jerseyans were defended … We do think Chris Christie took the extraordinary step to inject himself, not just this time, but the previous time -- as to who is the executive director …

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If a Chris Christie-staffed commission were to ignore … very clear instances of conflicts-of-interest, then that is a testament to the Chris Christie administration, to the individuals he’s appointed to this commission … to the process overall …

I’m going to start off with a belief that every member of that commission, and the executive director, are more focused on the law, and their job, and upholding it, than they are to political ties. And in order to prove that, I think they need to take action on some things that are very clear instances of someone making a decision when they or their associates stood to profit from said decision.

Chris Christie just said he “strongly, firmly” stands behind David Samson. What does that tell you?

Either he’s not fully aware of the extensiveness of the conflicts of interest that this person he’s defended has engaged in, and I would hope that once it’s clear, like he should be this morning … he will wake up and realize he needs to disassociate himself from David Samson. He needs to demand his resignation …

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Otherwise, he is supporting and abiding by a New Jersey where business interests, private business interests, trump the public good … If he doesn’t withdraw support … it’s more testament of the type of New Jersey that Chris Christie believes in than anything else.

Your group is selling a bumper sticker mocking Christie over Bridgegate, and pushing economic reforms like paid sick leave that Christie seems unlikely to embrace. Would people be wrong to conclude this complaint is just another way to embarrass Chris Christie?

Our interest is to ensure that the public good and the public trust are upheld, and that regular New Jerseyans have a fair shot – regular New Jerseyans that don’t have access to high-powered lobbyists. Everything we do is centered and focused on that. It just so happens that Chris Christie’s administration over and over again engage in activities that undermine the public good.

Was it inevitable that having a well-connected New Jersey attorney who retained a position at a law firm while in the [Port Authority Chairman] role would lead to conflicts of interest?

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I think that if David Samson were anyone else -- if he were any other public employee engaged in similar actions -- that he would already have been dismissed, fired, or would’ve been forced to resign … In Chris Christie’s New Jersey, there are different rules for inside players …

One should expect that a lawyer … who is well-versed in the law, and is appointed by the governor of a state -- that they would abide by the laws … and that there would be no, you know, dismissal or acceptance of clear instances in which they are in violation of these laws. I don’t think corruption should be deemed, like, inevitable or easily dismissed in the state of New Jersey … We intend to really push that everyone is held accountable …

The one limitation that we see, that we’re concerned about, is that the Ethics Commission doesn’t have a timeline as to when it needs to act on complaints … So we are trying to push, and will continue to push, legislators and the Christie administration to push and set a clear timeline when this is going to be addressed …

A slow-footed Christie administration just signals that this type of behavior is accepted by the governor and the administration.

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Josh Eidelson

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Chris Christie David Samson Ethics Law N.j. Working Families Alliance New Jersey Port Authority

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