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Federal Prosecutors Probing Port Authority Chairman’s Interests

By Michael Linhorst, The Record (Hackensack, NJ)

TRENTON, NJ — Federal prosecutors in New Jersey are investigating Port Authority Chairman David Samson’s overlapping public and private interests, a source said Tuesday, on the eve of a commissioners’ meeting at which protesters are expected to repeat calls for Samson’s resignation.

The U.S. attorney for New Jersey issued a subpoena requesting documents related to Samson’s involvement in agency votes that benefited clients of his powerful law firm, Wolff & Samson, said a source familiar with the matter who would speak only on condition of anonymity.

The subpoena, which was issued early last week, appears to expand U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman’s investigation beyond the September lane closures at the George Washington Bridge and into the chairman’s business dealings.

“We don’t comment on any investigations,” Samson’s attorney, Michael Chertoff, said in a statement.

A similar subpoena was issued by federal prosecutors in Manhattan earlier this month but was quickly withdrawn, as authorities in New York agreed to cede the investigation to their counterparts across the Hudson River. Fishman had already begun a review of the lane closures that were ordered by David Wildstein, another Port Authority ally of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Samson has come under fire for his vote on a $256 million reconstruction of the rundown PATH station in Harrison three months after a builder represented by Wolff & Samson proposed converting a nearby warehouse into hundreds of luxury apartments.

Records show Samson also voted to reduce a yearly lease payment from more than $900,000 to $1 for a park-and-ride lot in a deal with NJ Transit. At the time, NJ Transit was paying his firm up to $1.5 million for work related to maximizing profits on park-and-ride lots. After The Record reported on that issue, Samson said he had meant to recuse himself from the vote.

A subcommittee of the Port Authority’s Board of Commissioners is scheduled to reconsider the lease deal Wednesday morning, before the board meets later in the day.

Samson also voted on two bridge contracts worth $2.8 billion that went to construction companies represented by his firm. A person briefed on the subpoena said it requested documents related to those decisions, and possibly others.

About 30 protesters will be posted outside that meeting to call for Samson’s resignation, according to the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, which is organizing the protest. The group describes itself as an association of union organizers and environmentalists and is affiliated with nearly a dozen public- and private-sector unions.

“You really see this groundswell of opposition to him remaining as chairman of the Port Authority, and I think tomorrow’s protest will demonstrate that,” Rob Duffey, communications director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, said Tuesday.

The group filed an ethics complaint against Samson this month, arguing that he violated the state’s conflict-of-interest law by getting involved in Port Authority votes that benefited clients of his law firm.

“These ethical lapses, or the allegations that we make in this complaint, demonstrate a clear violation of the public trust,” Duffey said.

Duffey said his group’s position mirrored that of Patrick Foye, the executive director of the Port Authority. Foye, who was appointed by New York’s Democratic governor, said last month that he did not believe Samson had the “moral authority” to lead the agency.

Samson’s actions at the authority have come under scrutiny since the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal became national news. Local access lanes in Fort Lee were shut down for four days in September, causing huge traffic jams in the borough, apparently in retribution for the Democratic mayor’s refusal to endorse Christie for re-election.

Meanwhile, Christie’s former campaign manager Bill Stepien, who is also the subject of a federal investigation into the lane closures, according to his attorney, found a new job at a top political consulting firm despite the controversy.

Stepien now works for FLS Connect, a Minnesota-based vendor for the Republican Party, the company confirmed on Tuesday. The Republican National Committee paid the firm more than $67 million between 2008 and this year, according to data compiled by The Center for Responsive Politics. It made more than $20 million from Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012. The firm specializes in telephone calls for fundraising, advertising, voter identification or tele-town hall meetings.

“FLS Connect is excited to have Bill Stepien join our team,” the firm’s president, Sheila Berkley, said in a statement. “His extensive national experience and knowledge will be an asset to our clients and our company.”

The job signals a possible return to high-profile Republican politics for Stepien, although back in New Jersey, his attorney was still fighting a court battle to keep Stepien from having to turn over documents to a panel of state lawmakers investigating the lane closures. A Superior Court judge in Mercer County is expected to rule by the end of the month at the earliest on whether Stepien and former Christie deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly must comply with a subpoena for documents.

Stepien ran Christie’s successful campaigns for governor in 2009 and last year, and he was seen as a rising star in the national Republican Party. After Christie won by a 24-point margin in November, he signed on as a consultant with the Republican Governors Association, which Christie chairs.

But Stepien broke his ties with the association after documents became public earlier this year showing Christie’s top Port Authority appointees kept Stepien updated on the fallout from their closure of the bridge access lanes.

Stepien could not be reached for comment on Tuesday, and FLS Connect did not comment beyond its statement. Stepien’s job with the firm was first reported by Politico.

Photo: Chris Christie via Flickr

Republicans Say Port Authority Changes Are Needed

By Michael Linhorst, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

TRENTON, N.J. — After months of investigation, it’s time to force changes at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Republicans on the panel looking into the authority’s George Washington Bridge lane closures said on Thursday.

They unveiled a series of proposals, among them requiring authorities to post detailed information about their finances and activities online and creating a new crime, “using one’s official position to hurt commuters for unofficial purposes,” which would be punishable by up to 18 months in jail and a fine of as much as $10,000.

Some of those reforms have appeared in failed legislation in the past, and lawmakers wasted no time in using the new proposals to criticize their opponents’ past lack of enthusiasm for making changes at the authority.

Democrats said Republicans were trying “to change the subject” and “climb on the bandwagon of reform.”

“Now that somebody’s been caught abusing power, they’re running to embrace reform, when before they were anything but champions of reforms,” Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) a co-chairman of the joint committee investigating the lane closures.

The panel has issued dozens of subpoenas to investigate the September lane closures of the George Washington Bridge, which caused widespread traffic jams in Fort Lee after the borough’s Democratic mayor declined to endorse Gov. Chris Christie’s re-election campaign. Documents that became public last month show Bridget Anne Kelly, a Christie deputy chief of staff, told a Port Authority official to close the lanes, apparently for political retribution.

There are no signs the investigation is slowing. Lawyers for Kelly and former Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien will appear in court on March 11 to argue why they should not have to comply with the committee’s subpoena, the state judiciary announced on Thursday.

The two claim their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination allowed them to refuse to produce documents. The investigatory committee disagrees and is taking them to court.

Port Authority reforms have been on legislative agendas many times. About a dozen bills aimed at increasing transparency or altering the power of the authority were introduced in the Legislature’s previous two-year session, which ended last month. Only one made it to Christie’s desk. The Port Authority “Transparency and Accountability Act” would have required the authority’s board of commissioners to implement new financial controls, among a variety of other mandates. The governor vetoed it in 2012, arguing that it should have covered more agencies than just the Port Authority.

Republicans voted unanimously for the measure but did not support an override effort.

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) said the fate of that bill showed Republicans’ true interest in reform. “The place, perhaps, to start speaking out was when the governor vetoed the Port Authority bill,” said Weinberg, who is co-chairwoman of the legislative panel.

Republicans’ new proposals would impose standardized financial disclosures for top officials; establish independent monitors with subpoena powers; insulate top leaders from politics by giving them terms longer than the governors’ terms; and strengthen whistle-blower laws.

Those reforms would apply to all bi-state authorities and most would also apply to agencies based solely in New Jersey.

“The Port Authority is an out-of-control behemoth that has operated in a murky netherworld for far too long,” said Assemblywoman Amy Handlin, R-Monmouth.

Photo: Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr

Christie Speaks At GOP Event At New York City’s Tony Harvard Club

By Michael Linhorst, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

NEW YORK — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie spoke at a Republican Senate event at New York’s Harvard Club on Tuesday, the latest in a series of gatherings he has attended with top national Republicans even as his administration continues to battle scandal back in New Jersey.

The governor didn’t take questions on his way into the tony club in midtown Manhattan, where he met with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, other politicians and top GOP donors for the Majority Makers Policy Retreat held by the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

The committee, which announced Tuesday that it raised $4.62 million in donations last month, is trying to gain a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate in November’s election.

Asked to describe the message he planned to deliver to the group, the governor shot over his shoulder, “Seriously? Are you kidding me?” as he hurried into the club.

Christie was accompanied by his wife, Mary Pat, and Jeff Chiesa, former U.S. senator and state attorney general.

Earlier in the day, a Christie aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Christie would talk “about the importance of winning back the Senate majority this fall, and how the Republican Party can compete and win in all corners of this country, including blue states.”

Christie, a second-term governor with presidential ambitions, has worked for years on building a reputation as a pragmatic politician who can work across the aisle to get things done. His 22-point re-election victory in November — in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 700,000 — was intended to show his bipartisan appeal.

But his national ambitions are now in jeopardy as the scandal over the George Washington Bridge lane closures threatens to upend his career. The four days of closures in September caused massive traffic jams in Fort Lee, whose Democratic mayor declined to endorse Christie’s re-election campaign.

Like Christie’s recent trips to Florida and Texas, Tuesday’s appearance at the Majority Makers Policy Retreat was closed to the public and media. Senators, including McConnell, who were seen entering the Harvard Club did not speak with reporters outside.

A spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee declined to comment on the event.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Internal Probe Into Bridge Closing Draws Second Snub

By Michael Linhorst, The Record

TRENTON, N.J. — Another key player in the investigations surrounding New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on Monday refused to cooperate with the lawyer hired by the governor’s office.

Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich rejected a request by Randy Mastro to provide documents and sit down for an interview, according to a letter dated Feb. 17 and obtained by The Record.

Granting an interview with Mastro, or supplying the documents he requested, would not be appropriate while other investigations are continuing, said the letter sent to Mastro from Sokolich’s lawyer, Timothy Donohue.

Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer had refused a similar request last week.

Sokolich “fully intends to cooperate” with those other investigations — by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and a joint legislative committee — Donohue wrote.

Documents released last month suggested that the closing of two access lanes to the George Washington Bridge, creating huge traffic jams in Fort Lee for four days in September, were a response to Sokolich’s refusal to endorse Christie for re-election. The closures were apparently initiated when Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff for the governor, told a top Port Authority official, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

Mastro also requested interviews with and documents from Zimmer, who accused members of the Christie administration of withholding money slated for Superstorm Sandy recovery because she did not fast-track a billion-dollar real estate development project. Last week Zimmer said she would not cooperate with Mastro.

While the U.S. Attorney’s Office and a special investigatory panel in the Legislature continue their investigations into the lane closures, Mastro is conducting an internal inquiry into the closures.

“The governor’s office takes the allegations regarding the George Washington Bridge toll/lane realignments from September 9-13, 2013 very seriously,” Mastro said in a Feb. 8 letter to Donohue. “For that reason, we have assembled a team here that includes five former federal prosecutors and are conducting a thorough review of the facts pertinent to these allegations.”

In addition to requesting various documents and a sit-down interview with the Fort Lee mayor, Mastro filed a public information request with Fort Lee. In his Feb. 17 response letter, Donohue said Mastro “would be receiving responsive documents in the very near future.”

Donohue, a partner at Arleo, Donohue & Biancamano LLC in West Orange, was hired by Fort Lee last week to represent the mayor. He will be paid $350 per hour, a discount of about $250 from his normal rate, officials said.

Christie’s office hired Mastro late last month to help review the office’s operations and information flow, aid an internal review into the lane closures, and assist “with document retention and production in connection with the United States Attorney inquiry, and other appropriate inquires and requests for information,” according to the lawyer’s retention letter. Mastro, a partner in the New York office of the firm Gibson Dunn, is being paid $650 an hour — more than a 40 percent discount off his normal rate.

Photo:  Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr

Christie Keeps Tight Lid On Texas Fundraising Trip

By Michael Linhorst, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

DALLAS — There were no public events. There were no public statements. There wasn’t even a list of people he met with or how much money he raised.

This was the life of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, on Thursday as he made his second fundraising trip since the George Washington Bridge scandal became national news.

The itinerary for his one-day trip to Texas was kept so private that the chairman of the Republican Party of Texas didn’t learn of Christie’s visit until he heard about it from reporters.

But Democrats tried their best to direct a spotlight squarely on the beleaguered New Jersey governor.

“It’s significant that he had the audacity to come to Texas to raise money … when he is embroiled in this scandal that is contrary to everything that we believe elected officials should stand for,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party.

The scandal centers on the lane closures in September at the George Washington Bridge, which created huge traffic jams in Fort Lee. Christie insists he knew nothing about them. Subpoenaed documents show one of Christie’s top aides ordered the closures, apparently for political retribution against the town’s Democratic mayor.

Hinojosa and local Democrats held a news conference Thursday in a Dallas union hall. It was promoted by the Democratic National Committee, which vows to follow Christie as he raises money across the country.

“Chris Christie should be answering questions honestly and cleaning up the mess of his bridge scandal in New Jersey, but instead he’s heading to Texas, Illinois, Georgia and more to raise money and campaign for Republican governors,” said Ian Sams, a spokesman for the DNC. “His scandal has become a liability for both Christie and the Republicans he’s working to elect, and we’ll be sure to highlight that fact across the country.”

The DNC’s chairwoman, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, held a news conference three weeks ago in her home state, when Christie traveled there to raise money and huddle with top supporters.

But perhaps more significant than the hounding by Democrats on Thursday was the reaction of top Texas Republicans to the visit by Christie, who is expected to run for president in 2016.

“I think Governor Christie has a very, very uphill battle here to be competitive,” said Steve Munisteri, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas.

Munisteri said he was not aware of Christie’s Texas trip until reporters began calling him earlier this week. “When you don’t even let the state party know you’re coming in,” Munisteri said, “I don’t think you’re trying to build bridges with the grass-roots or activist base.”

Christie met with small groups of donors in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. His office directed questions about the trip to the RGA, which declined to say who was meeting with the governor or how much money was raised. “RGA chairmen typically hold smaller gatherings and meetings to fund-raise in the states, without candidates, before the primaries occur or when it is still early in the election year,” said RGA spokesman Jon Thompson. “The events are designed this way to encourage fundraising and maximize the use of the chairman’s time.”

David Barton, a conservative activist based near Fort Worth, said Christie’s trip was being kept “unusually quiet.”

“And so I’m reading into that that they’re very, very guarded and very selective,” he said.

Neither Texas’ Republican governor, Rick Perry, nor the leading Republican candidate in this year’s gubernatorial election, Greg Abbott, were scheduled to meet with Christie.

It’s common for RGA leaders like Christie to avoid meeting with candidates until Republican primaries are completed. David Carney, an adviser to Abbott, said the campaign had been talking with the RGA about Christie doing a fundraiser in the spring, but he knew no details about the events this week.

Even so, Democrats jumped on the absence of Perry and Abbott as an indication that Republicans outside New Jersey are afraid to be seen with Christie.

“I don’t think that Rick Perry and Greg Abbott are within 500 miles of Dallas right now,” Hinojosa said. “It tells you how other leaders in his party feel about him. He’s toxic right now and will remain toxic, in my opinion, until he has answered the difficult questions that need to be answered in New Jersey.”

Texas was a logical destination for a fundraising trip for Christie: The state is home to some of the RGA’s biggest donors.

Individuals and companies in Texas gave more than $6.4 million to the RGA last year, including $1 million each from home builder Bob Perry, who died last April, and the holding company Contran Corp., according to disclosures filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

And that total was given in a year when the only Republican candidates running for governor nationwide were Christie in New Jersey and Ken Cuccinelli in Virginia.

With Christie keeping such a low profile on his trip to Texas, GOP leaders raised doubts about his chances in the state’s 2016 presidential primary.

“He already was not a front-runner for 2016 among the activist base in the state. And the current controversy, obviously, does not help with that,” Munisteri said, adding that Christie does have “substantial support” among donors. “I’m not sure he’s got Texas as a target state where he expects to do well in 2016.”

AFP Photo/Eric Thayer