TRENTON, N.J. â€” The crowd roars as Chris Christie takes to the stage wearing his trademark New Jersey lapel pin. The cavernous banquet hall in Morris County, N.J., is packed to the walls with the faithful, waving American flags and blue “Christie for Governor” signs on this November night in 2009.
“Tomorrow … starting tomorrow,” Christie thunders as he claims the governorship for the first time, “we are going to pick Trenton up and we are going to turn it upside down!”
For a Republican to defeat an incumbent Democrat in a mostly Democratic state was a monumental mandate for Christie. He campaigned as an outsider, a former U.S. attorney for New Jersey who always spoke with pride about the 100 public officials who were convicted of, or pleaded guilty to, corruption charges during his tenure.
“I am a reformer,” he said on the campaign trail. His election website touted 88 ways that candidate Christie, when he became governor, would eschew politics as usual in a state famous for inside deals, political backscratching and public officials profiting from cozy connections.
Four years later, Christie has become a different type of governor, but not in the way the public expected.
The governor has allowed political cronyism to continue and even flourish, rather than stamp it out, with some of his closest confidants enriching themselves through millions of dollars in state contracts, and legal and lobbying fees, an Asbury Park (N.J.) Press review of thousands of pages of campaign, lobbying and contracting documents found.
But the inside player who has gained the most in the four years since Christie became governor is David Samson, a high-powered lawyer who has served Democratic and Republican administrations in the last three decades. Christie tapped Samson to chair the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, an agency that controls $8.2 billion and most of the transportation between the two states.
Samson, 74, a key name in the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal, and the law firm he founded, Wolff & Samson of Roseland, N.J., along with its lobbying affiliate, Wolff & Samson Public Affairs LLC, have earned millions of dollars from government connections in the Christie era, public records show.
“The phrase (Christie) used is that he would turn Trenton upside down. But mostly the only change we’ve seen is that it’s his set of insiders benefiting since Christie took office,” said Brigid Callahan Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University. “He very implicitly and explicitly said that it wouldn’t be politics as usual. He made a specific promise that the cronyism he identified under past governors would be absent from his administration.”
What role Samson played in the bridge lane closure has drawn wide scrutiny, including the attention of the Legislature’s special investigation committee and the U.S. attorney for New Jersey. Both have issued subpoenas for documents related to the closures, which have been tied to a political payback scheme run by Christie appointees in his Trenton office and at the Port Authority. Christie has said he knew nothing of the plan to close access lanes at the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee, N.J., in September. At a Port Authority meeting in February, Samson said he is “deeply sorry” for the traffic jams caused by the lane closures but has said nothing else.
The Press’ review of documents show that the law firm’s income grew and Samson developed a number of potential conflicts as Port Authority chairman. These include:
Wolff & Samson’s lobbying efforts. The law firm greatly expanded its lobbying work, which began in 2006, when it established a new limited liability company called Wolff & Samson Public Affairs in 2011. Lobbying revenue soared past $1 million in 2011 as companies such as Honeywell International Inc., Verizon New Jersey and Walmart hired Wolff & Samson Public Affairs. The law firm ranked 81st out of 115 lobbying groups in revenue before Christie took office in 2010. By 2013, the law firm and its public-affairs company combined to register the 10th highest lobbying revenues in the state, according to public disclosure records.
Wolff & Samson’s legal work. In 2011, Samson voted to have the Port Authority embark on a $256 million reconstruction of a PATH station in Harrison, even though his law firm represented the developer of nearby luxury apartments near the station, which stood to gain in value from the station improvements.
Questions about Samson’s role in the takeover of Atlantic City International Airport. Samson publicly supported the Port Authority’s takeover of the small south Jersey airport, even though his law firm stood to benefit from the deal because it is bond counsel for the owner of the airport, the South Jersey Transportation Authority. Samson sat out the vote on the Port Authority for the deal, but a union-backed watchdog group, the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, has filed a complaint with the New Jersey State Ethics Commission because of Samson’s public statements of support prior to the vote.
Wolff & Samson law firm’s government work. The firm was paid close to $5 million from state, county and local governments in 2012 for various legal work, including the refinancing of tens of millions of dollars in bonds for the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which owns Atlantic City International Airport. It held 21 public contracts in 2012.
In total, Wolff & Samson has been paid at least $12.2 million since Christie came to power: $347,000 in 2010 just for lobbying government; $4.7 million in 2011 for government legal work and lobbying; $6.1 million in 2012; and $1.1 million in 2013 for lobbying only. Income figures for government work last year are not yet available. Government contract records for 2010 are not available.
On Christie’s “Ask the Governor” radio talk show broadcast on FM101.5 on Feb. 26, the governor said that he stands “strongly, firmly” with Samson.
Christie’s office declined to comment about Samson’s public and private business roles.
Michael Chertoff, one of Samson’s lawyers, said in a statement that “since assuming the chairmanship of the (Port Authority), David Samson’s commitment has been to benefit the region and not about personal gain.”
Former state Sen. William Schluter, a Republican and former member of the State Ethics Commission, said Christie has leveraged New Jersey’s chummy politics at a whole new level, and in a much more blunt style, than past governors. “I didn’t see it with Gov. Kean and Gov. Whitman and Gov. Florio and Gov. Byrne,” Schluter said.