Chris Christie's era of misrule in Jersey: The empty swamp mall and the canceled tunnel

A massive Meadowlands mall boondoggle, and a Hudson tunnel that hasn't been built, typify the Chris Christie era

Published July 17, 2017 4:59AM (EDT)

Chris Christie (AP/Mel Evans/Getty/luvemakphoto)
Chris Christie (AP/Mel Evans/Getty/luvemakphoto)

This article was originally published in Insider NJ. Reprinted by permission.

While Gov. Chris Christie’s Bridgegate gambit rightfully helped kneecap his presidential run, it was his cancellation, in 2010, of a trans-Hudson rail tunnel that will have generational consequences not just for New Jersey but for the entire Northeast Corridor. And yet, even as he pulled the plug on the essential second Hudson tunnel, Christie was doubling down on trying to provide public support to complete a 2 million-square-foot mall in the Hackensack Meadowlands that had already lost over $1 billion in public pension funds and been pursued by three of his Democratic predecessors.

For years now, that enormous mall has been sitting in the Meadowlands and never opened, a kind of white-collar crime scene visible from space, but invisible to the locals at ground-level, because it has become just a part of the New Jersey Turnpike landscape. How it came to be built on state land is testimony to a culture of self-dealing and corruption that reaches all the way to Washington and back to the halcyon Clinton years. It involves names of prominent partisans on both sides of the aisle. Consider, it’s probably the only résumé item that Republican strategist Charlie Black, of Manafort & Stone fame, and the late Democratic governor of Texas, Ann Richards, have in common.

It is hard to imagine but the New York/New Jersey metro region hasn’t always been so dysfunctional when it came to infrastructure. In the 1920s and ‘30s, the region completed no less than four bridges linking New Jersey and New York – the Goethals, the Outerbridge Crossing, the Bayonne Bridge and the George Washington Bridge – all ahead of schedule and well below budget. Of course, that was thanks to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which more recently has suffered so badly under Christie’s authoritarian reign.

In the 21st century, it seems we can’t get out of our own way, culminating in the last seven years of misrule under Christie. The physical deterioration of vital links, like the trans-Hudson rail tunnel between the two states, now haunts the public every day with chronic delays and a certain amount of personal risk every time they use the existing century-old Hudson rail tunnel.

But just as with the Bridgegate caper, it’s the public, not Christie, who are caught up in the day-in, day-out misery of it.

For years, the lack of trans-Hudson passenger rail capacity has cost the entire region (both New Jersey and New York) billions of dollars in lost productivity. For decades, well before Superstorm Sandy, engineers had predicted that the existing century-old rail tunnel needed a serious upgrade and that a second tunnel was essential. Yet in 2010, with his eye on the presidency, Christie canceled the project, as a demonstration of his fiscal conservatism on the national stage. He was worried about a $2.5 billion potential cost-overrun on a project he had inherited from former Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat.

At the time, Christie walked away, a half-billion dollars had already been spent on designing the tunnel that had been on the drawing board for 20 years and enjoyed the financial support of the federal government. But Christie saw every public-policy decision – that should have been made in the public interest – through the prism of his own personal ambition and self-promotion.

This past Good Friday, conditions had so deteriorated at Penn Station in New York that after NJ Transit service collapsed during rush hour, a mass crowd of stranded, frustrated commuters panicked (on an apparent unconfirmed report of a shooting) and raced for the exits, leaving 16 people injured, some with broken bones.

Weeks later, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo amped up his response to remedy “near riot” conditions at Penn Station and the region’s mass transit crisis. Meanwhile, the federal government, which was willing to help fund the tunnel Christie canceled, appeared to have walked away. President Donald Trump’s budget mandated not funding infrastructure projects (like the tunnel) that have failed to move to the contract phase.

Alarmingly, since Christie’s high-profile cancellation of the project, the tunnel’s condition has become even more of a looming catastrophe. As it turns out, in 2012, the existing tunnel – built in the early 1900s by the Pennsylvania Railroad – was seriously affected by the saltwater storm surge from Superstorm Sandy. And while the corporate news media made the twisted wreckage of a rollercoaster on the Jersey Shore the emblem for Sandy’s destruction, all these years later the public has no idea of just how much the storm undermined the region's essential infrastructure.

Corroding from within 

According to an independent engineering inspection done for Amtrak in 2014, the chloride and sulfate residue left behind by the storm surge “continue to compromise the integrity and strength of the track and rails.” Moreover, the inspection report concludes “there is no reliable method of correcting this damage other than through the complete replacement of the track structure, including the ballast.”

And there was more. The part of the structure that was most seriously damaged was the part passengers and crew would most rely on to escape from the tunnel in the event of an emergency. “The most serious damage in the tunnels was found in the concrete bench walls. These bench walls, which run portal to portal, are an essential component of the tunnels. The structures provide emergency egress from trains, when necessary, as well as access to trains and track for emergency and other personnel … These bench walls were found to have a significant number of longitudinal cracks, severe spalls with exposed steel, and corrosion of embedded steel elements.”

It continued, “Due to the porous nature of concrete, the continuous duct work, the cracks and various other factors, there were a multitude of paths into the structure of the bench walls for chlorides and sulfates…. Due to their thorough infiltration of the bench-wall surfaces and the ducts, these substances cannot be reliably removed.”

In essence, the tunnel is actively deteriorating from the inside. “One example of the damage being caused by the chlorides and sulfates was evident [on] August 19th (2014)… A piece of the bench wall fell onto the tracks, which led to emergency repairs and train delays. Unless the damaged bench walls are replaced, such incidences will continue and worsen due to the processes known generally as chloride attack and sulfate attack.”

A $5 billion mall: Big down payment on a $13 billion tunnel

Why do some projects get built, while others – perhaps more essential to our security and well-being – get sidelined and languish? Our political economy is all about choices – who makes them and why. Some construction is about the public interest. Other undertakings are driven by market forces.  There are projects that are a combination of both. Sorting this out is critical when we talk about setting the ground rules for “public-private partnerships,” the au courant Trump-plan approach to funding municipal infrastructure in an age of political anxiety over incurring additional public debt.

For decades, engineers have said that the region desperately needed a second trans-Hudson passenger-rail tunnel but it just couldn’t get off the ground. Meanwhile, just a couple of miles away in the Meadowlands, the state of New Jersey under Christie’s leadership continues to press ahead with a mega-mall public-private project on state land. The project has already failed twice, cost public pensions from several states nearly a billion dollars, and is expected to cost more than $5 billion.

Even now, the backers of the project have completed yet another round of bond issues worth more than $1 billion on behalf of the third private developer at the site, which they are marketing through the Public Finance Authority, based in Wisconsin. Neither the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, upon whose land the project was sited, nor the local municipality where it is located, want to assume any financial liability for the performance of the “non-recourse” bonds being floated in their name to complete the project that was supposed to be open to the public a decade ago.

“We'll be done by the Super Bowl"

Although Chris Christie was opposed to the trans-Hudson passenger-rail tunnel, he doubled down on his support for this multi-billion dollar public-private project of dubious origins, which he also inherited from Corzine:  a two-million square-foot mall, formerly known as “Xanadu,” that had never opened.

Back in 2011, when I was on-air for WNYC in New York, I asked Christie why he was offering an initial $200 million in economic aid to the Ghermezian family, who own the Triple 5 Company that had developed and operated the Mall of America, to rebrand the stalled Xanadu project in the Meadowlands.

“Listen, what we’re trying to do is provide incentives for places like the [renamed] ‘American Dream at the Meadowlands’ to be built.  And in these difficult economic times, the state is going to become a partner – a small partner – in the project, but a partner nonetheless, and we’re going to get our money back once the project is successful,” he said. “So I think this is a great idea for New Jersey. I don’t know that I would have built Xanadu in the first place, Bob, but you know when I got here it already had that huge building in the middle of the New Jersey Meadowlands right along the Turnpike and Route 3; and to me it’s not an option to let it fail at this moment, because that’s not without costs either. That would cost at least $100 million to take the place down.”

I followed up by asking if it would be ready three years later for New Jersey’s first Super Bowl when “the eyes of the world” would be on the Garden State. “There’s no doubt, and so that’s why we got to get moving on this thing; make sure that construction starts this fall, so that we’re going to be ready in time for the Super Bowl,” Christie replied.

Super Bowl 2014 came and went.

The project is built on valuable real estate that belongs to the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority in the same complex that includes MetLife Stadium, the Meadowlands Race Track and the shuttered Izod Center. For years, the multi-colored massive box-like structure, visible from space and from the New Jersey Turnpike, has been roundly criticized as the Garden State’s ugliest building.

In 2016 alone, according to Bloomberg News, the Ghermezians donated $40,000 to the New Jersey State Republican Committee and $50,000 to the Republican National Committee.

Losses are not abstract 

Unlike the bitter, partisan dysfunction that doomed the building of a new Hudson rail tunnel, this mall in the Meadowlands – over roughly the same period – has enjoyed bipartisan support from elected officials since its inception. This consensus was often primed by hefty campaign donations, the promise of good-paying construction jobs and economic stimulation of the local economy.

This continued support came despite the spectacular financial collapse of the mall project, not once, but twice; and each time at the expense of public pensions in places as far away as Mississippi, Iowa, Texas and Alaska, whose fund managers were looking to beat the rate of return they might get from less risky investments, only to get burned.

In the process, over $1 billion in public pension money was lost, including $121 million from a 2006 investment made by the New York State Common Retirement Fund.  Its total $150 million investment is now carried on the books as having a $29 million value.  It had been approved by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli’s predecessor, Alan Hevesi, according to DiNapoli’s press office.

Hevesi was forced to resign from office more than a decade ago for using state employees to chauffeur his wife, and in 2010 pleaded guilty to steering millions of dollars in state pension funds to an investment firm that gave kickbacks to him and his key political adviser.

According to the comptroller’s press office, the fund bought into the Xanadu project in 2006, when it took a position in Colony VII. That was an investment fund run by Tom Barrack, whose Colony Capital came in to rescue and recapitalize Xan­a­du after its original developer, the Mills Corporation, ran afoul of the Security Exchange Commission and ultimately went bankrupt. Barrack, chairman of Trump’s inaugural committee, is also a key adviser to the president. Colony Capital was joined in the effort to revive Xanadu by Dune Capital Management, which was founded by current U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Ste­ven Mnuchin.

Colony had some local firepower as well. According to New Jersey’s Election Law Enforcement Commission data base, Colony retained David Samson, former New Jersey attorney general, chair of the Port Authority of NY and NJ, as well as a top Christie confidant. Samson was subsequently convicted of federal corruption charges for shaking down United Airlines for a regularly-scheduled flight from Newark to his second home in South Carolina.

The Mills Mall magic 

The initial mall project, then marketed as Meadowlands Mills – back in 2002, when Mills was the developer – was supposed to cost $1.2 billion, but quickly spiked to over $2 billion.  According to the latest cost estimate, reported by The Bergen Recordthe final cost for the latest iteration of the project – that has Christie’s backing – is expected to be somewhere $5 billion to $6 billion, with an opening date of March 2019. (The latest estimate for the Gateway NJ/NY Tunnel is $13 billion.)

To be fair, Christie’s advocacy for the project follows the lead of Democratic governors Jim McGreevey, Richard Codey and Jon Corzine, who all took their turn trying to make the Meadowland mall mirage a reality. For each administration, the rationale was that only by building such a complex could the state hope to retain two professional sports teams, the Devils and the Nets. Both left anyway.

In the process, tens of millions of dollars were spent to integrate the mall project into the existing highway network even as the project missed one grand-opening deadline after another. Along the way, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey built a $200 million, 2.3-mile rail spur from Hoboken (the major train station on the New Jersey side of the Hudson) to the site. It was originally supposed to cost $150 million, but the right of way happened to pass through a Superfund site that belonged to Honeywell, so 56 acres of that site were purchased for a $100,000 per acre.

Four of the 10 Port Authority commissioners had to recuse themselves on voting for the rail spur because they had financial links to the Xanadu project, which included the Mills Corporation and the developer Mack/Cali, whose leadership included David S. Mack. He was a major Republican campaign donor who, in 2009, was forced to resign from both his position as a commissioner for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Port Authority when he repeatedly took the Fifth Amendment during an investigation into allegations of political interference in New York State Police, conducted by then-New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

For much of the 2000s, the public push for the Xanadu mall was about holding on to the sports teams. But behind the scenes, the very economic survival of the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority – which was sinking deeper and deeper into debt – was driving the process. When it was established in the late 1960s, the Authority was originally conceived as being self-sustaining with the proceeds from its venues, particularly the Meadowlands Racetrack. For years, that was how it worked; but as gambling proliferated around the region, and even on the internet, horse-racing fell out of favor.

NJSEA mired in debt

At the same time the NJSEA’s mandate was widened statewide, its borrowing obligations were stretched way beyond its carrying capacity. “The state legislature said to the NJSEA that they were going to do the Atlantic City Convention Center, the Wildwood Convention Center, the Aquarium in Camden, even improving the athletic facilities at Rutgers and Seton Hall,” said Robert Ceberio, the former executive director of the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission. “It was like a candy store had been opened.” In 2015, the Christie Administration merged the HMDC into the NJSEA.

By 2010, the NJSEA was drowning in $830 million in debt, including $341 million for Atlantic City’s Convention Center and boardwalk restoration. Over the arc of its 40 years, the NJSEA had generated $600 million in revenue for the state.  But instead, the NJSEA – which was to generate revenue for the state – would become a ward of the state and be sustained by taxpayer funds.

Trading swamp land for higher ground 

So how did a private developer get control over a chunk of the NJSEA’s complex, arguably some of the most valuable real estate in the world?

In the late 1990s, the Mills Corporation was led by Laurence Siegel. The company had been growing like gangbusters, developing malls in Europe and throughout the U.S. It obtained an option on several hundred acres of wetlands in the Meadowlands, known as the Empire Tract, not far from the NJSEA complex. Mills proposed a two-million square-foot mall on the site and started the Army Corps permitting process to legally fill hundreds of acres of wetlands.

Mack-Cali, Mills’ partner, was proposing a 2.2 million-square-foot office and hotel component of the project. “Mack-Cali has a long history of developing premier office properties,” said Mitchell E. Hersh, then the CEO of Mack-Cali, in a press release. “We’re confident that the high-quality office space and state-of-the-art hotel and conference center that we will build at Xanadu will attract top-tier businesses to the Meadowlands, benefiting both the complex and the Northern New Jersey region.”

The pushback from environmentalists was intense. After all, since the 1970s the state’s public position on the Meadowlands was to preserve the remaining wetlands and reclaim and reuse the vast landfill tracts that had marred the landscape. “They originally had hearings, by 1998, with the Army Corps about a fill permit. They were filling 800 acres of wetlands and they said it was just marginal … but hundreds of people came out,” recalls Jeff Tittel, with New Jersey Sierra Club. “It was when our technology started to improve, and we started our email system; and we got 35,000 comments filed against the fill permits for Empire.”

Laurence Siegel, Mills’ CEO, his company and his executive team gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to both political parties and several of New Jersey’s elected officials. Throughout the relevant years, GOP operative Charlie Black – of Black, Manafort & Stone – sat on the Mills board. Also on the corporate board were Thomas Steyers, a billionaire who subsequently founded Next Generation, a nonprofit aimed at addressing climate change and the “diminished prospects for children and families;” and Sir Frank W. Lampl, former chairman and lifelong honorary president of the construction multinational then known as Bovis Lend Lease.

Mills' proposal for such major wetlands fill required approval, not only from the Army Corps of Engineers, but from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services; enter Vice President Gore’s Office of Environmental Quality’s Brad Campbell. According to the Sierra Club’s Tittel, Campbell advanced a “swap” concept, whereby Mills would agree to forgo developing the Empire Tract and give it to the state for “preservation,” in exchange for Mills getting the use of the state land owned by the NJSEA at their complex. Campbell would go on to become New Jersey DEP Commissioner. He now leads the Conservation Law Foundation and did not return a phone call for comment for this story.

Selling the "win-win"  

To advance the “win-win” of the swamp swap, Mills brought in former Texas Gov. Ann Richards and Hazel Gluck, top political strategist for former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, both of whom went to work lobbying for Mills. At one point in the full court press, President Bill Clinton and Mills CEO Siegel visited a high school in Newark, where the president used Mills as an example of a good corporate citizen, because Siegel had pledged to hire 1,000 Newark residents at what was then called the “Meadowlands Mills.”

Despite the star-studded support, there were those who argued publicly that from a macroeconomic point of view such a massive concrete pour belonged in an existing urban center like Newark, with existing transit, and not out in marshland where – as was demonstrated during Superstorm Sandy – the remaining Meadowlands served as an essential buffer from storm surges and rising sea levels.

This Mills full-court press was reported in November 2001 in the American Prospect by Jefferson Morley, who zeroed in on the ties between Siegel and Vice President Gore. Unfortunately, coming less than a month after the 9/11 attack, his reporting was likely to have been largely missed.

“Opponents of the proposed mall claim it would not only decimate a recovering wildlife refuge, but also mar the region’s human landscape by creating traffic jams and urban sprawl," Morley wrote. "One of the most prominent of these opponents, environmental litigator Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. – who was/is also one of Al Gore’s environmental advisers – says the mall would be nothing less than a “'national disaster.'”

He continued, “The mall’s developer, the Mills Corporation of Arlington, Virginia, not surprisingly, sees the matter rather differently.  To Mills CEO Laurence C. Siegel – who happens to be a major contributor to Gore’s campaign – Meadowlands Mills will be a shopping and entertainment complex that will employ thousands and enthrall millions.”

Kennedy went on the record, calling out the swamp swap as a sham transaction that would further endanger the ecological integrity of the Meadowlands. “It’s an old developer’s trick.  You claim you want to do something totally outrageous, and then you scale it back. You say, ‘I’m being reasonable here.  I’m willing to compromise here.’ That is not a compromise in my view. To me, it’s like putting lipstick on a donkey.”

New Jersey’s politicians and some environmentalists hailed the Meadowlands Mills deal as a “win-win” for business and the environment.  Other conservationists contended that the Empire tract was never viable, but was used to provide cover for Mills to obtain NJSEA’s land. For the cash-strapped authority, the $160 million lease payment pledged by Mills was a lifeline.

High-flying Mills crashes

But while Mills was carrying the day in the Meadowlands, it was rotting from the inside, even as the likes of Charlie Black were on its board of directors.  From 2000 to 2004, Mills publicly reported that its income went from $34.4 million to $232 million; and consequently, its stock went from $26 a share to $63. Yet by 2006 it all came apart, as years of massive accounting fraud came to light – for which there would be no criminal prosecution, but an orderly unwinding. Caught up in the stock collapse were Iowa and Mississippi’s public pensions, which lost hundreds of millions of dollars.

According to the law firm that represented the two state public pension funds, on January 6, 2006, Mills announced that:

  • It needed to restate its financial results for fiscal year 2000 through the third-quarter of 2005;
  • It had internal control weaknesses and deficiencies regarding its accounting practices;
  • It would write off 10 pre-development business projects, constituting a $71-million charge;
  • Seventeen executives and/or officers were either terminated or had retired;
  • A $4.1 million-dollar loan would not be repaid, and Mills had facts available in 2000 sufficient to make this determination, but the $4.1-million loan had been improperly reported in all of Mills’ financials, from 2000 through the third quarter of 2005;
  • It was in default of certain provisions of its line of credit and other project-related loans;
  • It had entered into a new $150 million credit line to provide short term liquidity; and
  • Investors should no longer rely on its financial statements for the period from fiscal year 2000 through the third-quarter of 2005.

Ultimately the two state public pension funds filed a class action and recovered some of their money from both Mills and Ernst & Young, Mills' accountant.

Siegel was forced to pay back about a half-million dollars in unauthorized travel expenses, but left with a $2.5-million golden parachute. By 2006, Colony Capital and Dune Capital came on the scene. They still retained Siegel as their front-man, who went on to tell The New York Times that 70 percent of the “now-completed” Xanadu was rented. No doubt that gave great confidence to the next crew of public-pension investors from Alaska, Texas and New York to believe that buying Tom Barrack’s Colony VII was a good bet.

The smart money stranded in Mills, which obtained loans from Goldman Sachs, could avoid getting caught in a complete collapse of Mills, that was now under the cloud of an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Amazingly, the swamp-mall Ponzi-scheme creature would live on, ready to feed off of a whole new crop of unsuspecting public-pension fund managers.

As far as the Mills caper, it appears that it was quietly de-listed, and the cast of characters went on to prosper. Colony went out and got fresh public-pension money and Mills just disappeared off the radar. The arrival on the scene of Colony, a casino-gaming and real-estate investment firm, set off speculation that the company’s longer term bet was on having the state sign-off on expanding gambling into the the Meadowlands, in hopes that it would save the existing racetrack and really put Xanadu on the map with a splash.

Xanadu in foreclosure 

When the Great Recession hit a year earlier, in 2009, Colony lost access to additional capital to finish construction of Xanadu, which was supposed to have a 30-foot chocolate waterfall, an 800-foot indoor ski slope, skydiving wind tunnels and the world’s largest ferris wheel.

By the summer of 2010 Colony’s lenders foreclosed and Barrack was out.

Also in 2010, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman’s office issued subpoenas to the New Jersey state legislature for “any and all records relating to the endorsement by lawmakers of any proposal by Mills” in the 2002-to-2003 timeframe. But that trail went cold.

A year later, in 2011, it was Gov. Christie’s turn to try and save the Meadowlands mall that three of his successors had stood by. Christie tapped the Triple 5 Company, the developers of the Mall of America in Minnesota. The developer had retained the law firm formerly known as Wolf & Samson – co-founded by David Samson, former New Jersey attorney general, chair of the Port Authority and top Christie confidant. Samson was subsequently convicted of federal corruption charges for shaking down United Airlines for a regularly scheduled flight from Newark to reach his vacation home in South Carolina.

Then, in November 2016, New Jersey voters overwhelmingly rejected a referendum by three-to-one to permit the expansion of gambling outside of Atlantic City.

Debt without consequence? 

American Dream Meadowlands is slated to open in the Spring of 2019. In June 2017, the Bond Buyer reported that buyers had been found for the more than $1 billion in unrated public-financing bonds being offered for the NJSEA and the town of East Rutherford via Wisconsin’s Public Finance Authority. According to the Bergen Record, Triple 5 has also successfully raised an additional $1.5 billion privately with JP Morgan Chase and Deutsche Bank AG, with $1 billion underwritten by Goldman Sachs.

Despite the Wall Street Journal’s headlines forecasting an upcoming retail apocalypse – and the planned closure of 3,500 brick and mortar outlets belonging to JC Penney, Macy’s and Sears – boosters of American Dream Meadowlands say their project will be a “global destination.” The project website describes a “shopping dream” set in “uber-luxury” and a Nickelodeon Universe Theme Park, along with “the world’s largest DreamWorks Waterpark.” The Record editorialized recently that the project was “too big not to finish.”

Last year, Bob Yudin, former Bergen County Republican chairman and a NJSEA commissioner, went to great lengths to emphasize just how insulated New Jersey taxpayers were from this latest round of Meadowlands mall financing. “I want to emphasize to everyone that there is nothing that put the taxpayers or any other New Jersey entity at risk,” Yudin said. “If this project should fail the only people at risk are the bondholders.”

Unless, of course, some public pension fund from some other state comes along and is seduced by a rate of return that is just too great to pass up. And then there is the lost opportunity cost to New Jersey, having spent almost 20 years trying to build a mall in the Meadowlands that the free market was unable to erect unassisted, even as our basic public infrastructure has continued to collapse.

By Robert Hennelly

MORE FROM Robert Hennelly