The embattled chairman of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, David Samson, a long-time friend and mentor to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), resigned his unpaid but politically powerful post on Friday, the governor announced at an afternoon news conference.
Mr. Samson, the senior New Jersey official at the dual-state transportation agency, was the last close ally to Governor Christie left standing after the Bridge-gate scandal broke in January. The governor has described Samson as one of the most influential figures in his career, and he has steadfastly supported the Port Authority chief, even as everyone else involved in the lane-closure controversy either resigned or was fired.
Samson’s top deputies, Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, also appointed to powerful Port Authority posts by the governor, resigned in December as the scandal began to engulf the Christie administration. Bridge-gate would gradually erode the governor's approval ratings in the 2016 presidential sweepstakes.
Federal investigators have been looking into possible conflicts of interest during Samson’s tenure at the Port Authority, given that the chairman also runs a high-powered New Jersey law firm that lobbies for the interests of businesses seeking work in and from the state.
Samson’s law firm, Wolff & Samson, has made millions of dollars since he became chairman of the Port Authority, and the firm’s lobbying billings have increased 20-fold during Christie's tenure as governor.
In 2012, Samson helped direct $256 million to revamp a commuter rail station, just months after a Wolf & Samson client proposed a plan to convert a nearby warehouse into a luxury residence. The revamped station would increase the value of the new apartment building. Last April, Samson also 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.
Christie continued to defend his friend at Friday’s news conference, his first since the Bridge-gate scandal broke.
“I think if you look at many of the commissioners, both currently on the Port Authority and over history, there has always been those type of connections and potential conflicts,” Christie said. “This is what happens when you ask people to come from the private sector and serve in a noncompensated, part-time position in a role at the Port Authority."
One of the most serious conflict of interest allegations against Samson also involves the most serious allegation against the governor.
Mayor Dawn Zimmer of Hoboken, N.J., has alleged that the Christie administration pressured her to approve a billion-dollar office complex project in her town by linking receipt of federal relief funds from superstorm Sandy to her sign-off on the project.
The project was proposed by The Rockefeller Group, a New York developer that hired Wolff & Samson to lobby the Christie administration to get the project approved.
“My understanding over the course of time is that not only General Samson, but other members of the [Port Authority] commission on both sides of the river would engage in appropriate recusals when necessary,” Christie said of Samson’s powerful decisionmaking role. “And so I hope that that’s what General Samson did, I trust that’s what he did in most if not all those instances.”
“So that’s an issue for him to deal with directly,” the governor continued. “I’m sure that he will. I have every faith and trust and confidence in David’s integrity, as do people on both sides of the aisle in this state over the course of the last 40 years that he’s been involved on and off in public life.”
In February, the Port Authority’s top New York official, Patrick Foye, the agency’s executive director, said Samson lacked the “moral authority” to help run the transportation commission.
Mr. Wildstein, the Port Authority official and alleged mastermind of the September scheme to close certain New York-bound lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge, wrote in an e-mail at the time that Samson was “helping us retaliate” against New York officials, after Mr. Foye put an end to the “traffic study” on the fifth day of the traffic-snarling lane closures.
Many have questioned why Christie’s team of lawyers conducting an internal review of the Bridge-gate affair never questioned Samson.
On Thursday, lawyers for the Christie administration released a 344-page report that “vindicated” the governor, and blamed a close aide of the governor and Wildstein for the traffic disaster stemming from the September lane closures.
Many officials involved in the scandal have invoked their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and did not cooperate with the attorneys conducting the governor’s internal review.
Christie has insisted that every member of his administration cooperated with the investigation, but Samson was left alone.
“He explained to me that here were issues of attorney-client privilege that he feared would be compromised if he participated in an interview,” Christie said.
Samson’s resignation Friday marks the fifth high-level official to leave his or her job after January’s revelations that senior members of the Christie administration orchestrated the lane closures leading to the bridge.