Must Chris Christie aides turn over messages? Judge hears case. (+video)

Investigators suspect that if there’s a 'smoking gun' indicating Gov. Chris Christie knew about the political payback scheme, it might be in these private communications. The governor denies any knowledge of his inner circle’s plans.

By , Staff writer

Two of Gov. Chris Christie’s right-hand aides, fired in January for their roles in the Bridge-gate affair, appeared Tuesday in a New Jersey state court to defend their refusal to turn over scandal-related texts and e-mails.

It was a crucial hearing for the state legislative panel investigating the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge last year, as it tries to get these former administration officials – who were arguably those closest to the Republican governor the past few years – to produce their personal, off-the-state-system contacts with each other.

Which possibly makes it a crucial hearing for Governor Christie as well. A state judge will decide whether these former aides – Bridget Kelly, the former deputy chief of staff who infamously texted, “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee”; and Bill Stepien, Christie’s former campaign manager whom many pegged as the next Karl Rove – must turn over any relevant personal texts and e-mails.

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Both have invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, but investigators suspect that if there’s a “smoking gun” indicating the governor knew about the political payback scheme, it might be in these private communications. Christie denies that he had any knowledge of his inner circle’s plans.

But as the Bridge-gate investigations, including that of the US attorney in New Jersey, continue at their slow-burn pace, they are revealing a much clearer picture of the Christie administration’s aggressive political use of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey – the bistate transportation agency with an annual budget bigger than that of many US states.

Investigators have begun to look more closely at possible conflicts of interest in the decisions of the Port Authority’s chairman, David Samson, a high-powered New Jersey attorney and founder of one of the most politically connected law firms in the state. Mr. Samson is also a longtime friend and mentor to the governor, who nominated him to the unpaid post in 2011.

Last week, the US attorney’s office in Manhattan issued a subpoena to the Port Authority, seeking documents related to the decisionmaking of Samson – who has also denied that he knew anything about his underlings' plans for a “traffic study” at the George Washington Bridge. His top two deputies, Christie appointees Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, resigned after news of the payback scheme broke.

On Monday, however, the New York office unexpectedly rescinded the subpoena – which many believe was out of deference to the New Jersey US attorney, who hasn’t yet sought these documents but is actively investigating Samson’s role.

“If you think about it, [Christie] fired everyone, from his very close aides and right down the list – but he stood by Samson,” says Jeanne Zaino, professor of political campaign management at the New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies. “They have a history that goes way back, and [Samson] seems to be something of a mentor or father figure to Christie for many years – and obviously he was put into the chairman role for that reason.”

But Samson’s firm, Wolff & Samson, has made millions of dollars since he became chairman of the Port Authority. Ranked by revenue, his firm stood near the bottom of the state’s 115 registered firms before Christie took office, but then shot up to the 10th highest-grossing firms serving New Jersey, according to public disclosure records reported by the Asbury Park Press.

Last April, Samson directed the Port Authority to give two bridge construction projects worth $2.8 billion to companies his law firm represented, according to an investigation by The New York Times. He also directed $256 million for the seeming random reconstruction of a commuter rail station in a New Jersey town where developers of nearby luxury apartments his firm represented stood to gain enormously.

Perhaps the most dangerous probe for Christie involves allegations by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who said the Christie administration pressured her to approve a billion-dollar office complex project by the developer, The Rockefeller Group.

According to Mayor Zimmer, the Christie administration suggested that federal relief funds for her town, which underwent significant damage from superstorm Sandy, would be withheld if she did not approve the developer’s project.   

The Rockefeller Group is a client of Wolff & Samson, which was hired to lobby the Christie administration to get the project approved.

The Christie administration has repeatedly denied the claims made by Zimmer.

Samson’s lawyer, Michael Chertoff, the former secretary of Homeland Security, said in a statement: “Since assuming the chairmanship of the [Port Authority], David Samson’s commitment has been to benefit the region and not about personal gain.”

Yet, even though Samson’s role may constitute a conflict of interest, it may not amount to a crime.

“A lot of this is just ugly politics – engaging in unethical behavior, undermining the public good – but all of this is political, not criminal,” says Bennett Gershman, professor at Pace Law School in White Plains, N.Y. “I’m not saying that the federal prosecutor has an uphill climb here, but I don’t think it’s anything like a slam-dunk case.”

“You’re showing that Samson’s law firm profited since Christie became governor,” he continues. “Oh, wow, I’m just shocked, just shocked, like in 'Casablanca.' But you have to show some type of nefarious conduct that violates a law.”

Christie has been having some recent successes in his long-planned strategy to travel across the United States this year, demonstrate his appealing swagger and salty style, and raise lots of cash for fellow Republican pols.

But if the US attorney’s probe does find anything nefarious in the Hoboken investigation, this could be devastating for the governor.

“That is a really bad sign for Christie, because as bad as Bridge-gate is, the problem with Sandy funding in my mind is worse for him,” Professor Zaino says. “This was his calling card, his claim to fame, and if now you find [validity in] Dawn Zimmer’s claims that they wanted her to move forward with this project, one of Samson’s clients, or else, it would be even worse for Chris Christie.”

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