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Wolff & Samson, Firm At Heart Of Christie Controversy, Has Had An Ally In The Governor

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Port Authority Chairman David Samson (L) with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Port Authority Chairman David Samson (L) with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

UPDATE: 3/28 -- Gov. Chris Christie (R) announced Friday that Port Authority Chairman David Samson had resigned, the same day Christie held a press conference to discuss the taxpayer funded internal review of the lane closure scandal known as Bridgegate.

During the press conference, Christie defended Samson's tenure at the Port Authority, including repeated instances where Samson's public office appeared to benefit the clients of his lobbying firm, Wolff & Samson. Christie said there were no "facts" to indicate any conflict of interest between Samson's leadership of the Port Authority and his firm's lucrative lobbying business.

What is undeniable, however, is that Wolff & Samson has made millions of dollars during Christie's administration from clients who benefited from the firm's deep ties to members of the Christie administration. The Huffington Post detailed these ties in late January, and the ways they helped serve Wolff & Samson's clients.

In a statement Friday, Samson did not indicate what he planned to do next, but it's a safe bet that he'll return to the firm that bears his name. "Over the past months, I have shared with the Governor my desire to conclude my service to the [Port Authority]," he said. "The timing is now right, and I am confident that the Governor will put new leadership in place to address the many challenges ahead."

* * * * *

WASHINGTON -- When the New Jersey-based industrial giant Honeywell Industries threatened to move its headquarters in 2010 unless the state doled out millions of dollars in tax incentives, the company did what many of New Jersey's biggest corporate players do -- it hired the law and lobbying firm Wolff & Samson to press its case.

Honeywell paid Wolff & Samson $80,000 in lobbying fees in 2010 to lobby agencies like the Economic Development Authority. It paid off. In July of 2010, Gov. Chris Christie (R) pledged to introduce a bill to increase the EDA's Business Retention and Relocation Assistance Grant program, which gave businesses tax incentives for keeping jobs in the state.

By the time the legislature made the changes at Christie's request, however, Honeywell had its sights set higher. The company now wanted a new kind of tax incentive, eventually dubbed the Grow New Jersey Assistance Program, which would greatly increase the dollar amount that a company could slice off its tax bill for each job it retained.

Honeywell went to Wolff & Samson once more, this time hiring the firm's newly created public affairs arm. And, once again, it paid off, with the legislature approving the bill in January 2012 and Christie signing it into law shortly thereafter.

With the bill signed, Wolff & Samson wasted no time in helping Honeywell get its share of state tax subsidies. During the first three quarters of 2012, the public affairs firm lobbied the EDA for Honeywell to discuss economic "job retention assistance programs," according to the firm's quarterly lobbying reports. And in September, the manufacturer was among the first companies granted an award under the new program, to the tune of $40 million.

All told, Honeywell paid Wolff & Samson Public Affairs $460,000 from 2011 to 2012, according to state lobbying records. The EDA did not respond to a request for comment on the lobbying.

In normal times, a client-lobbyist relationship like this might not raise eyebrows. But these aren't normal times for either the Christie administration or Wolff & Samson, which is stacked with a slew of former top Christie aides.

In recent weeks, the firm's founder, David Samson, has denied involvement in the scheme to close access lanes to the George Washington Bridge that has engulfed the administration. The firm itself, meanwhile, is in the midst of a brewing controversy over the work it did on behalf of a client that -- like Honeywell -- was seeking help from the state of New Jersey.

Dawn Zimmer, the mayor of Hoboken, alleged this month that members of the Christie administration had pressured her to approve a real estate development proposed by the Rockefeller Group, a Wolff & Samson client, and linked the deal to Hurricane Sandy relief aid. On Thursday morning, The New York Times advanced the story, reporting that Wolff & Samson officials with ties to Christie had put "the full court press" on Hoboken's planning lawyer to approve the project.

In a statement to the Times, Wolff & Samson said that its work for the Rockefeller Group was “appropriate in all respects.” The Christie administration has also denied charges that any untoward pressure was applied on Zimmer. A federal investigation is currently underway over how the Sandy aid was dispensed.

But a review of lobbying records and state contracts shows that on multiple occasions, the Christie administration has been willing to push lawmakers on behalf of Wolff & Samson clients. Often, it has done so successfully, and earned kudos for the help.

“The Grow New Jersey Assistance Program is a potent incentive for large-scale capital intensive projects," a Honeywell spokesman said when pressed on the lobbying work it hired Wolff & Samson to do. "We admire the commitment by the governor, legislature and NJEDA to growing business in New Jersey and thank them for providing us with an opportunity to preserve and create jobs, expand operations, and reinvest in the state. A decision like this has long-term ramifications for the Company and its employees.”

* * * * *

The strong ties between the Christie administration and Wolff & Samson aren't just well known in Trenton, they are heavily publicized. The firm's bio for Lori Grifa chronicles the closeness. Grifa left Wolff & Samson in January 2010 to become the commissioner of New Jersey's Department of Community Affairs under Christie. After a two-year stint, she returned to the firm, where she now "handles matters involving administrative and regulatory law, as well as government affairs" before a number of state agencies.

Grifa has since been characterized as one of the top officials pushing Zimmer to approve the Rockefeller project in Hoboken. She did not respond to a request for comment.

Jeff Chiesa, who is currently in his second stint at Wolff & Samson, has also served as Christie's chief counsel and as state attorney general. Christie appointed Chiesa to the U.S. Senate in June 2013, following the death of longtime Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) was elected to replace Chiesa in October, and Chiesa returned to the firm.

A third Wolff & Samson alum, Patrick O'Reilly, rejoined the firm after serving as a senior adviser to Samson at the Port Authority.

And then there is Samson himself, a top ally of Christie's who served as chairman of his transition committee. Christie appointed Samson chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in late 2010, a post that placed him at the center of the Bridgegate scandal.

Samson, a Republican, has been held in high regard in New Jersey political circles. Former Gov. James McGreevey (D) appointed him attorney general in 2002, where he worked alongside Chris Christie, then the U.S. attorney. When Christie was elected governor in 2009, it was widely anticipated that the close relationship between the two men would elevate Wolff & Samson, turning it into one of the top lobbying shops in the state.

Indeed, the firm's annual lobbying revenues have exploded during the Christie years, from $43,000 in 2009 to well north of $1 million in 2012 and 2013. New clients, like Walmart, Verizon and the Rockefeller Group have paid Samson's firm hundreds of thousands of dollars since Christie took office -- a major sum in state politics.

“Samson is the lawyer you would go to if you wanted to influence the Christie administration,” said a longtime Republican political insider in New Jersey, who requested anonymity because he does business with the Christie administration. “If you wanted to get the administration’s attention, you would go to Samson.”

In addition to lobbying the state government under Christie, Wolff & Samson has also taken on government work. A review of public disclosure records showed that the firm served as counsel to six different state government agencies in the first two full years of the Christie administration, often advising the agencies on matters related to bond issuances. At least three of those relationships started after Christie became governor.

As of 2013, the firm served as counsel to the attorney general's office, the Economic Development Authority, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, the Schools Development Authority and the South Jersey Transportation Authority, according to Samson's financial disclosure forms. The firm also served as counsel to the New Jersey Transit Corporation from June 2010 to January 2012, a spokesperson for the agency said Wednesday. The Star-Ledger reported that the firm did work on behalf of the state Treasury Department as well. These relationships with state agencies netted Wolff & Samson $8.4 million in two years, according to the paper.

The Huffington Post repeatedly sought comment from Wolff & Samson on potential conflicts of interest, but the firm did not respond. A spokesman for Christie, likewise, did not respond to questions from HuffPost about the administration's ties to Wolff & Samson.

The law isn't as clear cut on lobbying ethics in New Jersey as it is in some other states, and conflict of interest prohibitions hinge on whether an actual conflict exists, not just the potential for one.

"If you are representing an agency, you can't represent a client that's adverse to that agency before the agency," said Sal Anderton, a professor of law and political science at Montclair State University and legislative director for Porzio Governmental Affairs. Anderton stopped short of casting doubt on the firm's ethics. "At the end of the day, Wolff & Samson is a very credible, competent law firm," he said. "It's hard to believe that they knowingly engaged in unethical representation or conduct."

For some lawmakers in New Jersey, however, the degree of Wolff & Samson's involvement in state affairs is cause for concern. Speaking about the Honeywell tax incentive deal, in particular, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) called the web of interests troubling.

"If you are counsel to an agency before which you are lobbying, I would say that questions should have been raised at the time, and/or in this case the law firm should have stepped aside," she told HuffPost in a phone interview Wednesday. Weinberg is a member of the joint special committee investigating the bridge scandal.

* * * * *

In 2013, one year after Wolff & Samson's contract as counsel for the New Jersey Transit Corporation ended, the firm started lobbying the agency on behalf of Cablevision, one of the area's largest cable and Wi-Fi providers. Cablevision wanted to install Wi-Fi hotspots in major New Jersey train stations. But it only wanted to offer free access to travelers who were Cablevision subscribers. The deal was a potential windfall for Cablevision, which said it would charge non-subscribers a "reasonable fee" to use the Wi-Fi. In July 2013, NJ Transit selected Cablevision's proposal over the competitor's.

When it served as counsel to the Schools Development Authority, meanwhile, Wolff & Samson lobbied legislators on behalf of a for-profit charter school company, the National Heritage Academies. The company was pushing a bill to allow high-performing private schools in struggling districts to apply to become a charter school and receive public funding. Christie signed the bill into law in December 2011. National Heritage Academies paid Wolff & Samson $250,000 for its efforts from 2010 to 2011, according to the firm's lobbying reports.

In 2012, the New Jersey Treasury Department announced a plan to privatize major portions of the state lottery over the subsequent 15 years. The following year, the Christie administration announced that a lotto conglomerate led by GTECH, a Wolff & Samson client, would be the sole bidder on the lottery privatization project. The decision infuriated labor unions and Democrats in Congress, but the governor's office wouldn't budge. When the state legislature passed a bill that would have delayed the privatization deal, Christie vetoed it.

Wolff & Samson lobbied the state Treasury Department on GTECH's behalf from the start of 2012 through the second quarter of 2013, the firm reported. And in June 2013, the Treasury awarded a GTECH consortium a contract said to be worth billions of dollars. According to lobbying records, GTECH paid Wolff & Samson $270,000 from 2011 to 2012. Revenue totals are not yet available for 2013.

"The fix was in from the start, and everybody knew it," said Seth Hahn, legislative and political director for Communications Workers of America's New Jersey chapter, which opposed the deal.

With federal and state investigators now looking into Zimmer's allegations of withheld Sandy aid, more light will likely be shed on Wolff & Samson's position within Christie's orbit. State investigators have already subpoenaed Samson over the role he may have played in ordering the lane closures, which led to massive traffic jams in Fort Lee, N.J., for four days in September.

While scrutiny on Samson continues to intensify, a source with knowledge of the state investigation expressed caution that the probe into Bridgegate would expand into a look at his specific role in the scandal anytime soon.

"We just don't want to be premature in getting out there in front of this," the source told HuffPost. "We've had success in a very judicious, methodical approach to everything."

But the focus remained on Samson this week, with the Bergen Record reporting that in his capacity as Port Authority chairman, he voted to approve the construction of a new, $256 million public transit station on property owned by a Wolff & Samson client, BRG Harrison Lofts Urban Renewal LLC. Two other commissioners had recused themselves from the vote, citing potential conflicts of interest. Local lawmakers complained that Samson did not do the same.

“I know David Samson as a good and decent human being but for transparency's sake we need to move the ethics issues to the state’s Ethics Commission for the good of the public, who especially in these times have lost faith in the bi-state agency,” state Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex, Morris) said in a press release calling for more oversight of the Port Authority.

Reached for comment on the vote, Karen Kessler, a spokeswoman recently hired to work with Samson's personal legal team, said, "David Samson followed all the procedures and policies as spelled out by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey."

Jason Cherkis contributed reporting.

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