Complaint Alleges Conflict of Interest in Port Authority Chief's Law Practice

Complaint Alleges Conflict of Interest in Port Authority Chief's Law Practice Carmen Natale

A formal complaint lodged with the N.J. State Ethics Commission alleges Port Authority Chairman David Samson violated the state Conflicts of Interest Law by using his position to benefit clients of his law firm, Wolff & Samson.

The complaint, filed by the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, alleges that Samson on four occasions voted on or influenced Port Authority matters involving clients.

“We are calling on the State Ethics Commission to thoroughly investigate each of these allegations and hold Samson accountable,” said Analilia Mejia, executive director of the group, which describes itself as a “grassroots coalition representing workers, environmentalists, consumers and more.”

If the commission finds that Samson violated the law, he could be removed from the agency post, fined up to $10,000 and censured, among other penalties.

The intersection between Samson’s Port Authority role and the dealings of, his 130-lawyer firm in West Orange, have come under scrutiny because of the Bridgegate scandal—the closing of local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge last September, now under investigation by federal prosecutors and a legislative committee.

Samson, who was attorney general under Gov. James McGreevey from 2002 to 2003, served as counsel to Gov. Chris Christie’s first campaign in 2009 and headed the transition team.

Christie appointed Samson to the Port Authority board of commissioners in January 2011 and he was elected chairman on Feb. 3, 2011.

Samson’s name appears in emails subpoenaed in the course of the investigation, which has already led to the resignations of fellow Christie Port Authority appointees Bill Baroni and David Wildstein.

The complaint alleges that:

• On March 29, 2012, Samson voted to approve a $256 million renovation of the Harrison PATH station that entailed buying land from PSEG, a Wolff & Samson client. Further, PSEG and another firm client, BRG Harrison Lofts Urban Renewal, owned nearby property likely to increase in value as a result. Two other commissioners recused for undisclosed reasons.

• On Feb. 9, 2012, Samson voted to lower rent on a Port Authority-owned lot in North Bergen, leased to client New Jersey Transit, from $900,000 a year to $1 per year for 49 years. Wolff & Samson allegedly had a $1.5 million contract as special counsel for the transit agency. The vote was retroactively amended on Feb 19, 2014, to reflect recusal by Samson.

• On April 29, 2012, and June 26, 2013, Samson voted to award contracts for work on the World Trade Center site worth more than $7.5 million to Railroad Construction Company, partly owned by firm client Alfonso Dalosio.

• In March 2011, at a Port Authority meeting, Samson allegedly spoke in favor of a proposal for the Port Authority to take over operation of the Atlantic City airport from South Jersey Transportation Authority, which lost $3.5 million on it in 2011. Wolff & Samson has been bond counsel for South Jersey since 2011.

Subsequently, Baroni, the Port Authority deputy executive director, and Wildstein, its director of interstate capital projects, drew up a proposal for the transfer, which Samson was “involved in … shaping,” the complaint says.

Samson, despite acknowledging that he should recuse, remained present during a March 20, 2013, meeting at which the airport proposal was deliberated and approved, and commented in favor before the vote and continued to do so after, even though the details were not yet finalized, says the complaint.

The conflicts law requires recusal when a state officer or employee has any financial interest, direct or indirect, that is incompatible with the discharge of official duties and defines an incompatible interest as including “outside employment,” and “any matter pertaining to a business associate or … investment … which interest might reasonably be expected to impair . . . objectivity and independence of judgment” or “create an impression or suspicion” that an official was violating the public trust.

The complaint says Samson is subject to the conflicts law under the terms of the statute and a code of ethics adopted by the Port Authority on Feb. 19, 2009, that says commissioners “shall comply with all applicable laws, rules, and regulations” as other unsalaried officers from their state of appointment.

If the commission finds that Samson violated the law or ethics code, it could fine him as much to $10,000 and suspend him for one year for each violation. Additional possible penalties are restitution, demotion, censure or reprimand.

For conduct determined to constitute “willful and continuous” disregard, the commission can remove people from office and bar them from public employment in the state for five years.

The ethics commission, an independent agency created in 1973 to enforce the conflicts of interest law has seven member—four public ones and three from the executive branch.

Andrew Berns, a commercial litigator with Einhorn Harris Ascher Barbarito & Frost in Denville, has been the chairman since 2010.

Susana Guerrero, formerly one of Christie’s counsel, became executive director at the end of January.

A call to Samson at his West Orange law firm was referred to one of his attorneys, Angelo Genova of Genova Burns Giantomasi Webster in Newark, who released a statement saying “We look forward to rebutting each and every one of the concerns raised in this Complaint in the appropriate forum for resolving these issues.”

Samson is also represented by Michael Chertoff, a former Homeland Security secretary and federal judge, now with Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C.

The New Jersey Working Families Alliance’s lawyer is Steven Weissman of Weissman & Mintz in Somerset, who declines comment.

Christie’s press office did not respond to request for comment on the complaint.