Scandal Shines Light on Lobbying

Article excerpt

A $40 million tax credit for Honeywell. Exclusive rights to charge customers for wireless Internet at NJ Transit rail stations for Cablevision. A 15-year lottery privatization contract potentially worth billions of dollars.

All these deals have been awarded by state agencies to lobbying clients of Wolff & Samson, the law firm of Port Authority Chairman David Samson, a close ally of Governor Christie who, like the governor, has faced scrutiny in the wake of the scandal involving the September lane closures at the George Washington Bridge.

Samson's West Orange-based law firm is one of the top "go-to" firms in New Jersey, continuing the tradition of others, like Teaneck's DeCotiis, FitzPatrick & Cole, that reap benefits when a particular political party or close ally is in power.

Among Wolff & Samson's clients are some of the biggest names in New Jersey, including Triple Five's American Dream project in the Meadowlands. Major utility PSE&G is also a client, as is South Jersey Gas, which sought to run a natural gas pipeline through the Pinelands of South Jersey.

Such firms as Wolff & Samson, though well-known in political circles, typically fly under the radar of public consciousness. That has changed as the biggest crisis of Christie's political career has put Samson's firm squarely in the public eye.

Public records show the law firm headed by Samson -- who was legal counsel for Christie's 2009 campaign and led his transition team -- also has earned millions of dollars doing legal work for numerous government agencies during Christie's tenure, which began in early 2010. In 2013, the firm was counsel to five different state agencies, according to Samson's most recent financial disclosure form.

But the firm does more than just legal work. Wolff & Samson also employs lobbyists who've represented major corporations seeking favorable outcomes from state government. Public records show that in recent years the firm has earned millions of dollars as its governmental affairs agents have lobbied the Christie administration on behalf of Wal-Mart, Honeywell, Cablevision and others.

Those lobbyists have successfully pressed for tax breaks and other deals from some of the same state agencies that the firm's lawyers have done work for on other matters -- and at times during the same periods.

"In New Jersey, access can get you results -- access does help," said Jeff Tittel, director of the state's chapter of the Sierra Club. "But they're beyond access."

State law doesn't specifically prohibit law firms that employ lobbyists from working for state agencies at the same time their governmental affairs agents are lobbying those agencies, and no one suggests such activity on its face is against the law. For years, law firms in New Jersey have done such work with little to no criticism, but that was before the ongoing controversy involving the Port Authority brought new attention to the potential for conflict.

In New Jersey, lobbyists must register with the state and disclose their activity on a quarterly basis. Lawyers are governed by the New Jersey Courts' Rules of Professional Conduct, which spell out what activities constitute a conflict of interest.

But there is a fair amount of gray area when it comes to law firms that also employ lobbyists, opening the door to questions about ethical issues and the appearance of insider dealing. Some say strong disclosure laws are a good solution to the tension between public service and private-sector work, while others say new, tighter limits should be enacted.

Sal Anderton, a Montclair State University professor of political science and law who is also legislative director for the Trenton- based lobbying firm Porzio Governmental Affairs, stressed that most lawyers who lobby take the rules of conduct very seriously.

"Proximity to power or proximity to those in positions of influence is good for business," Anderton said. "But crossing the line into unethical behavior is not. …