TRENTON, New Jersey — A Democrat-leaning public interest group filed an ethics complaint Monday against the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, alleging that the powerful real estate lawyer and close ally of Gov. Chris Christie misused his public position to benefit clients.
The New Jersey Working Families Alliance alleges in a complaint to the State Ethics Commission that David Samson violated the state's conflict of interest law on four separates instances, including voting to approve a parking lot and train station renovation while his firm represented parties that stood to benefit. A phone message left with Samson's spokeswoman was not returned Monday.
Samson's name first surfaced in the plot to block approach lanes to the George Washington Bridge, which backed up traffic into Fort Lee apparently to send a message to the town's Democratic mayor, who did not endorse Christie. Emails and text messages released by the legislative committee show a Christie operative writing that Samson was "helping us to retaliate" after a New York executive ordered the traffic lanes reopened. Samson hasn't commented on the content of the messages.
Also Monday, the lawyer for Christie's two-time campaign manager continued to assert that Bill Stepien should not be compelled to turn over private emails and other documents to a New Jersey legislative panel investigating the lane closures.
The legislative panel is also seeking documents from Stepien and fired Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly, who appears to have given the go-ahead for the closings. Both have refused to comply. In a legal filing Monday, lawyer Kevin Marino reasserted Stepien's right against self-incrimination, saying the act of producing documents would be akin to testifying against himself. A judge ultimately will decide.
In the ethics filing against Samson, the advocacy group cited Samson's vote to allow the Port Authority to lease a commuter parking lot for $1 per year — a reduction from the $900,000 that had been charged — while his firm represented NJ Transit, the state agency benefiting from the reduced lease.
Samson, the founding partner of the Wolff & Samson law firm and a former state Attorney General, later changed his vote to a recusal. NJ Transit paid Wolff & Samson $1.5 million to help increase parking lot profits.
Samson also voted to approve a $256 million renovation to the Harrison PATH station while his firm represented two land owners who would benefit from the transit redevelopment.
Christie's office declined to comment Monday, but the governor as recently as Wednesday said he continued to back Samson "strongly" and "firmly." Samson led Christie's transition team to governor.
Analilia Mejia, executive director of the advocacy group, said state conflict of interest law clearly states that state officials and agency appointees cannot engage in conduct that violates the public trust, such as voting on a project in which they have financial incentives. She said Samson should have recused himself from all votes in which he appeared to have a financial stake, and he should not have been involved in any related discussions.
The group filing the complaint endorsed Christie's opponent for governor and took part in a recent commuter protest at the bridge.
Christie recently named a onetime administration lawyer to head the ethics panel where the complaint will be evaluated. Before working for Christie, the panel's new executive director, Susana Guerrero, spent eight years in the law firm of Bill Palatucci, Christie's closest political adviser.
Mejia said she expects to complaint to be evaluated on its merits since members of the ethics panel have an obligation to uphold the law regardless of who appoints them.