Backing Christie Is Good Business for Bridge-and-Tunnel Lawyers
One World Trade Center was finally rising over downtown Manhattan, after years of battles about its design, security, and cost, when a new problem emerged: The site’s political overseers wanted to oust the project’s lead law firm.
It was early 2010, and Chris Christie had just been sworn in as governor of New Jersey. His appointees to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey were pressing to have DLA Piper fired. The reason: A powerful Republican at the firm had refused to endorse Christie in the election, according to interviews with current and former executives at the agency. Port Authority officials resisted, concerned that switching lawyers would throw construction further behind schedule. Still, DLA’s billings from the WTC project dropped as it was passed over for new work.
Christie, who’s now running for president, made the call himself about which firms got work from the PA—and which didn’t—say two people involved in the process. Jameson Doig, a retired Princeton professor who has authored a history of the agency, says of the claims: “It’s consistent with Chris Christie’s pattern of looking for ways to reward allies and punish those who don’t agree with him.”
Previously undisclosed details about the Christie administration’s steering of PA legal contracts were gleaned from thousands of pages of billing records, memos, and e-mails. Current and former PA officials who played a role in awarding the contracts were interviewed, as were people involved in a federal investigation of the Christie administration’s role in the September 2013 closure of lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge, which is run by the PA. Most of the people interviewed requested anonymity, because they weren’t authorized to discuss the contracts. Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said in a statement: “The Governor has no role in and has never directed the Port Authority’s selection of any legal or professional services contract, period. Citing unsubstantiated anecdotes from anonymous sources to suggest so is not only irresponsible, it’s completely false.”
As the U.S. attorney for New Jersey from 2002 to 2008, Christie awarded friends and allies no-bid legal contracts worth millions of dollars to monitor companies that avoided prosecution by paying penalties and promising to reform. Still, the more than 100 public corruption cases he prosecuted during that tenure cemented Christie’s reputation as a reformer, helping him become the first Republican to win a statewide race in New Jersey in more than a decade.
The PA, which operates bridges and transportation hubs in metropolitan New York, has a long history of patronage hires and meddling by the governors of New York and New Jersey. Former PA officials say that within months of Christie’s inauguration, his allies came to them with the names of law firms they were expected to hire and fire. Two of those allies have been charged in the bridge case: Bill Baroni, a former deputy executive director, pleaded not guilty; David Wildstein, the former director of interstate capital projects, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and is cooperating with prosecutors.
Atop the list of favored law firms was Dughi Hewit, a 24-lawyer Cranford firm, where Christie spent his first 15 years as a lawyer. Baroni and Wildstein repeatedly told PA officials that the administration wanted Dughi Hewit in the mix of firms getting outside counsel work. In
September 2010 the firm was awarded a contract to represent the agency in litigation with developers of a marine terminal in Bayonne. The contract wasn’t put out to bid, according to a memo signed by General Counsel Darrell Buchbinder, because of “the sensitive nature of this matter.” Dughi Hewit, which didn’t have PA work before Christie took office, has collected $8.85 million since then. The firm did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The push to influence the way contracts for legal work were awarded intensified after Christie confidant David Samson became PA chairman in early 2011. The agency was told to dispatch spreadsheets listing all outside legal contracts to the governor’s office, according to current and former PA officials. Christie spokesman Roberts said similar requests went to dozens of authorities and commissions as part of a broad effort to “rein in and bring discipline” to spending on outside contractors.
Gibbons, a prominent Newark firm with 220 lawyers, also saw increased billings. It raised money aggressively for Christie during his 2009 race. Samson, Baroni, and Wildstein pressed PA officials to give the firm work, according to current and former executives at the agency. In 2011, when Gibbons bid for work on the Goethals Bridge rehabilitation project, the agency awarded it the job, as well as a no-bid contract for legal work on the Bayonne Bridge replacement. Gibbons, which had $51,000 in PA contracts the year before Christie took office, has reaped more than $9 million since 2010. Gibbons Chairman Patrick Dunican Jr. says the firm’s “dedicated and reputable” lawyers have represented the Port Authority for 22 years, under four Democratic and three Republican governors.
Samson is under investigation by federal prosecutors for possible conflicts of interest related to his PA work. His spokeswoman, Karen Kessler, declined to comment. Baroni’s attorney Michael Baldassare also declined to comment. PA spokesman Steve Coleman says decisions about hiring outside counsel are “based on objective criteria.” Sometimes, “noncompetitive” selections are made based on a firm’s expertise or the uniqueness of a case, he says.
Samson was particularly forceful in his demands to curtail legal work by DLA Piper on the World Trade Center, according to current and former PA officials. DLA secured a contract for One World Trade Center in 2007, shortly after William Gormley, a Republican who served two and a half decades as a New Jersey state senator, joined the firm. Gormley declined to endorse Christie when he ran for governor in 2009. DLA’s annual revenue from the PA, which reached $10 million in 2011, had dropped to less than $4 million by 2013. Some of the decline was related to the project nearing completion, but the PA turned elsewhere for additional WTC work because of political pressure, according to current and former agency officials. E-mails and calls to DLA weren’t returned. (DLA does legal work for Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg Businessweek.)
When Christie came up for reelection in 2013, Gormley pivoted, publicly praising his fellow Republican. Christie won in a rout, and Gormley celebrated with other VIPs at campaign headquarters on election night.
Investigators on the George Washington Bridge case have reviewed the PA contracting but are unlikely to seek charges against anyone, say people with knowledge of the matter. Federal law doesn’t bar pay-to-play arrangements, as New Jersey does. Prosecutors could try to show government officials took an action in exchange for something of value, but they’d have to prove there was an explicit quid pro quo.