Port Authority Chairman Samson resigns as Christie polishes image

Gov. Christie holds his first news conference since Jan. 9, a day after his lawyers said he was cleared of any involvement in bridge-lane closings.
Gov. Christie holds his first news conference since Jan. 9, a day after his lawyers said he was cleared of any involvement in bridge-lane closings. (EDUARDO MUNOZ / Reuters)
Posted: March 30, 2014

TRENTON - David Samson, the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, resigned Friday amid continued political fallout over lane closures last fall at the George Washington Bridge.

Gov. Christie, speaking to reporters at a Statehouse news conference, said the decision was Samson's and did not implicate Samson in the bridge scandal, which has spawned legislative and federal investigations.

The resignation, effective immediately, comes a day after the law firm representing Christie's office released a report absolving the governor and his current staff of any responsibility for the September traffic jams.

Friday's news conference - Christie's first since Jan. 9 - capped a week of image-restoration efforts.

The Republican governor basked in vindication on two national news programs, scored a victory against Senate Democrats with a proposal to limit raises for police and firefighter unions, and prepared for a pilgrimage this weekend to billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, whose support could imbue Christie's presidential aspirations with new life.

Abandoning a recent cautious streak, he returned to the no-holds-barred style that catapulted him to national fame. He resumed clashing with reporters on Friday, upbraiding one for asking a question "beneath the job you hold."

Though he acknowledged his diminished political standing - "Yeah, sure" - he made clear his commitment to governing and said: "If I do my job the best way I can, my future will take care of itself."

But as Christie took to the offensive, his critics did not lie down. An attorney for Bridget Anne Kelly, the governor's former deputy chief of staff, who now-famously called for "traffic problems in Fort Lee," assailed Thursday's report from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher as "venomous, gratuitous," and "sexist."

The report held Kelly and David Wildstein, a former Port Authority official, responsible for the lane closures. It disclosed details of Kelly's personal life, which it suggested may have affected her "state of mind" at the time of the traffic jams.

The report declared that "not a shred of evidence" implicated Christie.

Kelly's attorney, Michael Critchley, rejected the report as a "preemptive strike to isolate Ms. Kelly and impugn her credibility," adding that the only "credible" investigation into the matter was the U.S. attorney's. Kelly is fighting a legislative subpoena in court, as is Bill Stepien, the governor's former campaign manager.

Gibson Dunn's report - dismissed by New Jersey Democrats and others as biased and insufficient, largely because the firm did not interview Kelly, Samson, and others involved - contained a number of recommendations, including calling for a bistate commission to study the Port Authority's structure.

Samson agreed with the proposals, Christie said, and told the governor in a phone call Friday that the "best way to start a new era at the Port Authority is with new leadership."

In a statement, Samson, a former state attorney general who has come under considerable scrutiny in recent months for alleged conflicts of interest between his role as Port Authority chairman and as a lawyer in private practice, said he had told Christie in recent months of his desire to resign.

"The timing is now right, and I am confident that the governor will put new leadership in place to address the many challenges ahead," Samson said.

Christie said Samson had talked about resigning for a year. But Christie asked him to stay as he made his transition to his second term as governor.

"He's 74 years old, and he was tired - that's what [Samson] told me," Christie said.

The New Jersey Working Families Alliance, which has filed a complaint against Samson with the state Ethics Commission, described the Port Authority chair as "a key piece of Gov. Christie's dirty machine."

"Today, that machine is falling apart," said the left-leaning group, which has organized protests at Christie's town-hall meetings.

News reports have chronicled potential conflicts of interest in Samson's capacity as Port Authority chair. Among them: his vote in favor of a $256 million North Jersey transportation project that could benefit two of his private clients, even as other commissioners recused themselves, and his vote to approve two bridge-construction contracts worth $2.8 billion that benefited his clients.

As the bridge scandal ensnared two of Christie's appointees at the Port Authority - Wildstein and Bill Baroni, both of whom resigned in December - the governor continued to praise Samson.

"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 past 40 years," Christie said Friday.

He added: "His role was not central in any of these things," referring to the bridge controversy.

Gibson Dunn attorney Randy Mastro told reporters Thursday that his firm had been unable to interview Samson for its report. Christie said Samson cited attorney-client privilege in declining to participate.

Democrats used that as evidence of a "one-sided review."

"The governor's top appointee at the Port Authority refuses to be interviewed for the administration's report and then resigns the day after it comes out, leaving us once again with far more questions than answers," Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen) and Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), cochairs of the legislative committee investigating the lane closures, said in a statement.

The governor also said Samson told him in January he had no involvement in the lane closures. In one e-mail released by investigators, Wildstein wrote on Sept. 13 that New York officials at the Port Authority had reopened the lanes.

"We are appropriately going nuts. Samson helping us to retaliate," Wildstein wrote to Kelly.


aseidman@phillynews.com

856-779-3846

@AndrewSeidman

Inquirer staff writer Jonathan Lai contributed to this article.

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